Chris Curtis is the co-founder and SVP of Development for Compass Datacenters. We are publishing a series of posts from Chris that will take you inside the byzantine world of data center development, shedding a pro's light on the many aspects of the development process. See Day 5 for previous installment.
In our previous installment of Developer’s Diary, I discussed the challenges you can expect when you get to the permitting step of a project with the local Permitting and Inspection Commission (PIC). This is the last major hurdle to getting a green light from local authorities to move ahead with a data center project. PIC’s see buildings differently than data center professionals do, plus they often speak a language that is different than the common tongue in the data center industry. Those differing perspectives and languages can create friction, but that can be smoothed over. Obtaining final approval and a building permit from PIC’s is a challenge unto itself, however, and that is the topic of this final Developer’s Diary.
Unlike the planning commission process that we described in Diary 4, there is no PIC meeting presentation. Your submission is made in writing and comments are then submitted that require your response. Perhaps the most critical aspect to this process is to make your submission as early as possible to provide you with the maximum amount of time to respond to inquiries. Timing is key here because if you make your submission too late you will never conclude the comment and response period in time to make your target date for breaking ground on your data center.
It is important to understand that PIC’s will be scrutinizing your data center project not only on a system-by-system basis, but also how they all come together within the building as a whole. This requires individual reviews of everything from your electrical design to your fire protection systems. As a result, you better know and understand the details of your plans inside-and-out, because when they ask you to describe why you chose to put the electrical outlets in a particular spot, any response bordering on “seemed like a good idea at the time” is not going to be looked upon favorably.
If you’re not prepared for their questions and give a weak answer, the members of the PIC are likely to view your response as falling under the “Seemed like a good idea at the time” umbrella. If your answer doesn’t provide strong justification for the design element, their assumption will be that very little, if any, thought was put into it or that it’s an unreasonable shortcut. To you, those design elements will be no-brainer best practices that are widely used in the data center field, but the vision your answer will conjure in the minds of the PIC is the captain of the Titanic saying, “Hey guys, I think we can make really good time if we cut through this ice field” or Custer proclaiming, “Boys, I think we’ve got ‘em outgunned. Let’s attack”.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
Successfully preparing for a PIC submission and responses requires that you coordinate with your design professionals to carefully review every aspect of your building plans. Although understanding the components of each plan in detail is imperative, what is perhaps more important is continually asking yourself why you did something, since the commission will definitely want to know. As much as possible your answer should tie back to the specific requirements of the city’s building codes. This does two things. First, it limits lines of attack for over-enthusiastic commission members.
Commission member: "Why did you decide to use a dual action fire suppression system, Mr. Curtis?"
Me: "Well sir, that type of system meets your local fire code as set forth in NFPA standards. Also, we held a pre-construction conference with the Fire Marshall to confirm this information."
Commission member: "Oh"
Second, it demonstrates that you, and your design team, studied the applicable local codes and ordinances. Building commissions love developers who’ve made an effort to understand their codes and ordinances. It shows you care. Praising them for their clarity, comprehensiveness, etc., however, crosses the line. No one likes a brown nose!
In preparation for my submission I’ve been in a perpetual state of review with our architect, contractor and civil engineer. Reviewing each drawing, questioning our design rationale, seeking answers to the questions that we think the commission will ask. The allies hit the beaches at Normandy with less planning than this. I am confident, but not cocky, that we will be granted permission to build our data center. Naturally, I won’t be taking any chances. Wish me luck.
For those of you who have read each installment of this series I hope I was able to provide you with some insight into the development process and helpful advice for your own development efforts. After completing the series many of you are also probably asking why I chose to go into a line of work that can be so confusing, contradictory and nerve wracking. Didn’t I have career alternatives--some position with lower stress like a bomb disposal specialist, Ebola virus researcher or hostage negotiator? To you, all I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.
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