Building A Data Center Can Be A Blast: A Little TNT Can Help

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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 complexity of the construction process for data centers. He will explore the ups and downs (and mud and rain) of constructing data center facilities and the creative problem-solving required for the unexpected issues that sometimes arise with every construction process. For more, see Chris’ previous columns on the planning process.

CHRIS CURTIS
Compass Datacenters

High explosives. Who doesn’t love them? Isn’t a large part of our culture based on blowing things up? Certainly some of our leading celebrities have made whole careers out of appearing in movies that feature one massive explosion after another. Well, the world of data center development is no different. It doesn’t happen often but, every once in a while, we have to roll out the dynamite and do some serious blasting. Like most things in the development world, the need to conduct controlled explosions has some plusses and some minuses.

Lessons in Geology

Most of the time, the average data center can be built without the need to prepare the site using cataclysmic force, but our site resides on what geologist’s refer to as a “limestone shelf.” In the technical parlance used by we developers. this is referred to as “a bunch of rock.” Maybe not as scientific, but a lot more descriptive. I don’t mind telling you, this news made the on-site guys positively giddy with excitement. The prospect of going to work and getting to say things like “fire in the hole” just seems to bring out the best in folks.

Despite the electric atmosphere that the prospect of dynamite utilization brings, this is serious stuff. You know how your mother used to say that it’s “all fun and games till someone gets hurt,” well, this a few notches above that. Being blown to smithereens has a degree of permanence that you just aren’t going to find with the average office related mishap. Just like any refined activity, there is a protocol that must be followed before you can begin demolishing large swaths of real estate.

Telling the Neighbors

First, you must alert the locals. This means going from house to house to advise the occupants of the homes surrounding your project site that they might just want to keep the kiddies and pets inside between the hours of 9 and 11 this coming Tuesday. Naturally folks have questions, “Will it be loud?,” “Am I at risk from flying debris?,” “Can I watch?,” to which the answers are of course, “Yes,” “No” and “Sorry, but our lawyers won’t allow that.”

Second, you put up signs and mark off the area. With this type of signage I’ve found that it’s best to be simple and declarative: “Blast Site – Keep Out,” for example. Some developers prefer “High Explosive Area – Trespassers Keep Out,”, but I find this a little pretentious and wordy. Short and pithy also eliminates the possibility of your sign being liberally interpreted. No one wants to have someone’s body parts distributed though out your job site because they live in the neighborhood and decided that the word “Trespasser” didn’t apply to them. This type of thing can really hurt morale. When marking off the blast area I prefer to go conservative. Sure it costs you a little more in orange plastic fencing, but I think we can all agree that the phrase “better safe than sorry” applies here.

Dress Code: Hard Hat and Ear Plugs

I don’t think that I can describe the level of anticipation until the big day finally arrives. Remember waiting for that special gift at Christmas? This is better, since you now it’s actually going to happen, and you’re not going to get a sweater instead of that new bike you wanted. When blast day finally comes, everyone gets to wear a hard hat and ear plugs–this is a developer’s version of a Fourth of July celebration. I must admit that even though I’ve been to a few of these things I can barely make it until the time that the big switch is thrown. And once it’s thrown – wow. The explosions are deafening, there’s dirt and debris flying everywhere, grown men are jumping up and down and pointing – you just don’t get entertainment like this every day.

Someone once said that “There is always one guy who doesn’t get the memo,” and that’s the case with blasting. Just accept the fact that no matter how thorough your canvassing, or how many signs you post, someone in the neighborhood is going to complain. This being the case, I was not surprised when I received a nasty email from a local resident complaining about the noise and, helpfully suggesting that I build my data center somewhere else. Since all it takes is one crank with a friend that works at Channel 8 to turn your project into a PR nightmare, I recommend handling these situations in a face-to-face manner. As I said, I’ve been through this drill before so I put on my sympathetic face (Note: It’s good to practice this before your visit. Sometimes a sympathetic face can look more like an “I could care less” face, or worse, the “surly punk” face, so you really need to get into character before you go) and went to visit the offended party.

The Developer’s Listening Skills

My first grade teacher always told me to be a good listener. This is great advice for these types of “disgruntled neighbor” situations because, really, what else can you do? After all, the blasting is already done, and there’s a big hole in the lot behind their house, so you sit and listen. Remember to nod at all the points that they use to tell you that your actions are akin to a crime against humanity and assure them that the data center you are building will not have a negative impact on the neighborhood. And this is true. Since it only takes a few folks to run a facility and the building is full of servers, traffic and noise aren’t going to be on-going issues. This is what folks really want to know. Once you’ve apologized and assured them that the worst is over, even the most disgruntled citizen tends to listen to reason. After all, doesn’t everyone really just want to have their “day in court.”

As a developer, the pendulum of your activity can swing widely. One day, you’re just another swarthy guy enjoying the primal thrill of blowing things up, and the next, a mild-mannered Dr. Phil talking an irate neighbor off the ledge. In this role, you must be prepared for anything.

Stay tuned for the next article in the series, titled, Maybe We Should Turn This Data Center into an Ark: How Bad Weather Can Cause Chaos with a Construction Timeline.

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