Residents of Northern Virginia often complain about the appearance of the data centers that line the major roadways in Loudoun County, saying they are dull, grey, anonymous buildings. So when Equinix built its newest facility at the crossroads of Data Center Alley in Ashburn, the company wanted to do something to improve its curb appeal.
This week Equinix gained county approval to add decorative lighting to its DC21 data center, using upward facing LED lights to bathe its facade with colors to reflect holidays and seasonal themes - red, white and blue for the fourth of July, green for St. Patrick's Day and pink for Valentine's Day and Breast Cancer Awareness month, for example.
In its filing, Equinix said the display will "bring a more diverse visibility and positive exposure of data centers within the community, creating a landmark at the entrance to Data Center Alley."
The Loudoun Board of Supervisors approved the new lighting in a 5-3 vote on Tuesday, but not without controversy. Several supervisors expressed concern about light pollution, as well as the prospect that other data centers will follow suit.
"What I don't want is for this part of Loudoun County to look like Las Vegas," said supervisor Caleb Kershner. "One data center might not do it, but many more probably would."
Others saw the idea as progress.
"We've had constituents say data centers are ugly, and look like big gray blocks," said Supervisor Sylvia Glass. "This provides an opportunity to do something different to dress things up. It looks like you're trying to do something to make it more fun. This is the first kind of application like this, so let's see how it works."
Neighbors Want Better-Looking Data Centers
The often uninspired visual design of data centers has been a hot-button issue in Loudoun, prompting neighbors and public officials to demand more attractive buildings. Developers have responded with designs that feature office space and glass on buildings that face the road. An upcoming zoning update will include new design standards for data centers.
But as data centers grow larger, developers must grapple with ways to add interest to vast facades that can span 1 million square feet.
The Equinix lighting plan offers a new wrinkle on visual enhancement, echoing colored lighting for buildings like the Kennedy Center or Empire State Building. It's a strategy worth noting as data center projects face growing scrutiny from local officials and the community.
Equinix DC21 is the first building on a new campus at the intersection of Loudoun County Parkway and Waxpool Road, the focal point of Data Center Alley. The intersection is surrounded by giant data centers operated by Digital Realty and CloudHQ.
After opening DC21 last year, Equinix approached the county with two proposals to make the data center more visual. The company asked for larger signage on the exterior of the building, as well as LED lighting to add color to the facade.
Both ideas are a departure for Equinix, which has historically not used signage to identify its data centers. But the visibility of DC21 offered an opportunity to showcase its brand at a highly trafficked intersection, where several rivals have logos atop their facilities. The company's initial request for a large sign was scaled back and approved.
In its lighting proposal, Equinix noted previous county staff commentary that "appropriate signage and messaging in prominent locations and messaging promoting more awareness of Loudoun’s importance to the world’s internet network could help improve community support and pride in the county’s businesses."
The company will add 60 ground-mounted fixtures ranging in wattage from 120W up to 235W and pointing inward to illuminate the facade. Equinix said the LED lighting schemes will "create festive colors and patterns on the building exposures for various holidays and special occurrences such as, but not limited to:
- Valentine’s Day- Pink
- St. Patrick’s Day – Green
- Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Veterans Day – Red, White & Blue patterns
- Pride Day – Rainbow Patterns
- Breast Cancer Awareness- Pink
- Halloween, Black and Orange
- Hanukkah, Blue and White
- Christmas, Red, Green and White
County planning staff urged denial, noting that the Equinix proposal was inconsistent with county policy on protecting the night sky, which specifically excludes data centers from using upward-facing lighting. Several supervisors also noted this in opposing the lights.
"This uplighting is harmful to our night sky," said Supervisor Julie Briskman. "I think this could create a slippery slope, with other data centers coming in and asking for uplighting that violates our policy and night sky provisions."
In response to concerns about impact on the night sky, Equinix conducted a study that found no impact above 85 feet.
Supervisor Matthew Letourneau said concerns about night sky impact are valid in rural areas but seemed silly in Data Center Alley, given its proximity to the brightly-lit Dulles Airport.
"I sometimes feel like they can't win, because we ask data centers to make the effort to try to improve themselves, and one comes along and does it and they kind of get a hard time," said Letourneau. "It's a legitimate effort to improve the look of the corridor, and give some style to a drab industry."
"We've all sat up here saying they're hideous and ugly and we should do something about it," said board vice chair Koran Saines. "They listened, and they came up with an idea."
The ruling applies only to Equinix, and any other properties desiring similar lighting will also have to seek a special exemption.