What is Mission Critical Construction?


Have you heard the phrase, ‘Mission Critical’? This phrase has several different meanings depending on the context, So, what is it? The answer is: it depends.   

In individual businesses, Mission Critical functions are those that, upon failure or disruptions, would halt their ability to conduct their business. In society, a Mission Critical system may include facilities like hospitals, 911-call centers, police and fire stations, utility suppliers, etc., the failure of which would be catastrophic for the public. These are often referred to as Essential Facilities. In construction, Mission Critical is most often used to refer to data center construction, although it may also be used to described work on essential service projects such as 911 call centers, utility facilities, and more.

With the rise of society’s reliance on the internet, cloud-computing and cloud storage, data centers are a major factor in our ability to operate businesses, commerce, schools, etc. Their failure can have overwhelmingly cataclysmic consequences to our society, so constructing them in a manner that is complete and maintaining them to prevent shutdowns in any way makes them complex projects.

Today, we will spend some time focusing on data center construction. What makes them “critical”, complex, expensive, and ultimately, reliable. 

What are Data Centers?

Data Centers are the location where an organization’s IT systems and equipment reside, storing information the company uses to operate smoothly on a daily basis. Increasingly, companies are storing less of their data inside their own locations and using cloud-based storage instead. This data must be stored safely, away from potential physical or cyber-attacks, natural disasters, or utility interruption. This is where large data centers come into play, and why they’re referred to as Mission Critical. An interruption in service could disrupt the operations of hundreds of businesses and services.

Data Centers are made up of a physical structure: the facility. The Core Components include the equipment and software for IT systems such as servers, network infrastructure, and security. Personnel must be available 24/7 to operate the facility itself. And finally, these buildings include a Support Infrastructure, which includes:

  • Uninterruptible Power Sources, such as generators, redundant power sources and back-up battery banks.
  • Environmental Controls, such as computer room air conditions, highly sophisticated HVAC systems and exhaust systems.
  • Security systems, such as video surveillance and biometrics.

Reports state that there are more than 7 million data centers worldwide. They vary in size and type and the businesses they serve. Their services may include:

  • Data storage and management
  • Back-up data storage
  • High-volume transactions
  • Online gaming
  • Social media storage

With hundreds or even thousands of servers containing potentially sensitive data running at the same time, a large amount of heat is produced as a result. If the temperature of the data center runs too hot or too cold, the servers are at risk of working improperly, malfunctioning, or failing. The potential for this risk is why data centers use a large amount of power to run their equipment and provide temperature control – primarily in the form of air conditioning – to the servers located inside.

Complexities of Data Center Construction

Large data centers must be secure, and able to access large amounts of power. They may be multi-story facilities, or single story and can be 100,000 SF or more in size. While construction types can vary, the building envelope is often concrete tilt-up with a steel roof structure, controlled entrances and exits and very few windows. Significant mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection systems are installed to provide consistent power, low-voltage, heating and, more importantly, cooling.

Redundant power is essential, as the services these data centers provide cannot be shut down at any time.

Additionally, provisions for maintenance should be included in the initial design to account for redundancies, transfer switches to allow for temporary and phased shutdowns, and more. Generally referred to as N+1 redundancy, data centers ensure that at least one independent backup component is available for every component in the facility.

Cooling of the data services inside these buildings are a crucial element of the design and construction of mission critical facilities. Specialty mechanical and electrical trade partners with expertise in this area must be involved in the design and delivery of these projects, as the data stored in servers are analyzed frequently.

There is pressure on all building types to increase the sustainability of both building and operations, with increased desire for buildings to become Net Zero. Data centers are no exception. Power sourced from renewable energy is becoming a priority and many operators are analyzing the option to build solar arrays into their projects or even help fund the development of renewables off-site. With demand on the rise, speed-to-market for these buildings are essential for contractors to successfully meet the needs of their clients.

The Data Center Construction Market

In 2020, the data center construction market was valued at $7.24 billion and is expected to reach $14.17 billion by 2026. The COVID-19 pandemic increased the need for cloud-based technologies, as companies moved to remote operations, and increasingly realized that maintaining the infrastructure for data storage onsite is expensive and difficult to maintain. The rise in popularity of online meeting platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, social media and live-streaming television shows and videos are also contributing to this expansion.

The healthcare industry and their need for data collection and storage is another driving factor in the increasing need for data centers, as hospitals and clinics seek ways to reduce their expenses and risk.

Data centers are located in varied geographic locations, generally needing a large amount of space, a healthy supply of low-cost water and electricity. Rural locations are acceptable and, in many cases, desirable, although many of the largest facilities include urban, multi-story buildings.

Some large data center locations across the country include:

  • Ashburn, Virginia
  • Secaucus, New Jersey
  • Los Angeles, California
  • Miami, Florida
  • Chicago, Illinois
  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Dallas, Texas
  • New York City, New York
  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Hillsboro, Oregon

State and local municipalities across the United States compete for data center placements in their respective areas, often offering incentives such as tax relief packages based on investment amount and/or long-term jobs that are created. States with incentives include Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.

In addition to state programs, many local municipalities offer their own incentives to attract investment in their area. In The Dalles, Oregon, for instance, the City and Wasco County approved an agreement to reduce property taxes for Google. Umatilla County and Hermiston City Council approved a property tax exemption for Amazon in 2019, as well.

Prospects for continued construction of Mission Critical facilities appears to be going nowhere but up.

Final Thoughts

Mission Critical construction is a building type that requires knowledge of complex systems and specialty subcontracting, design and engineering partners. The outlook for this market is clear: more of it will be coming, with new buildings under construction and planned in areas across the United States and the globe. Emerging technologies, quests to improve energy efficiency and maximize data storage capabilities will all promote innovation within the industry. We will look forward to seeing where these improvements take the Mission Critical market. In five years, the means, methods and sophistication involved will be extraordinary to behold.