Five Critical Success Factors in Data Center Construction

Sept. 2, 2020
Brett Semans, Managing Principal at  DCi Data Center Infrastructures, delves into how the data center build process has evolved. Read on to further explore how to ensure data center construction success. 

Brett Semans, Managing Principal at  DCi Data Center Infrastructures, delves into how the data center build process has evolved. Read on to further explore how to ensure data center construction success. 

Brett Semans, Managing Principal, DCi Data Center Infrastructures

Building‌ ‌data‌ ‌centers‌ ‌is‌ ‌a‌ ‌complex‌ ‌and‌ ‌time-consuming‌ ‌process, ‌‌often‌ ‌involving‌ ‌dozens‌ ‌of‌ ‌contractors‌ ‌and‌ ‌hundreds‌ ‌of‌ ‌moving‌ ‌parts. ‌‌Missed‌ ‌deadlines, ‌confusion‌ ‌over‌ ‌responsibilities, ‌‌and‌ ‌impractical‌ ‌schedules‌ ‌can‌ ‌have‌ ‌ripple‌ ‌effects‌ ‌that‌ ‌delay‌ ‌a data center construction‌ ‌project‌ ‌by‌ ‌months‌ ‌or‌ ‌more. ‌ ‌

Based on our more than ‌100 ‌years‌ ‌of‌ collective ‌experience‌ ‌building‌ ‌data‌ ‌centers, our team has identified five ‌critical‌ ‌factors‌ ‌in‌ ‌bringing‌ ‌projects‌ in ‌on‌ ‌schedule ‌and‌ ‌within‌ ‌budget.

  1. Procure for Success

Project‌ ‌owners‌ ‌and‌ ‌contractors‌ ‌may‌ ‌each‌ ‌have‌ ‌relationships, ‌discount‌ ‌plans,‌ ‌and‌ ‌volume‌ ‌buying‌ ‌agreements‌ ‌that‌ ‌can‌ ‌reduce‌ ‌the‌ ‌cost‌ ‌of‌ ‌equipment purchases and installation. ‌These‌ ‌should‌ ‌be‌ ‌applied‌ ‌whenever‌ ‌possible, ‌‌but‌ ‌procurement‌ ‌responsibility‌ ‌needs‌ ‌to‌ ‌be‌ ‌clearly‌ ‌defined.

Base prices can be misleading. Project owners need full transparency on ‌the‌ ‌total‌ ‌cost‌ ‌of‌ ‌procurement, ‌‌including freight, storage, ‌commissions, ‌ and‌ ‌surcharges. ‌

For each major asset to be procured, these questions need to be considered:

  • Who is responsible for procuring exactly which parts of the system? ‌
  • Who‌ handles ‌which aspects of the installation? ‌ ‌ ‌
  • Who‌ ‌coordinates‌ ‌with‌ ‌other‌ ‌members‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌project‌ ‌team? ‌ ‌ ‌
  • Who‌ ‌ensures‌ ‌that‌ ‌timelines‌ ‌are‌ ‌met?
  • Are commissioning authorities, control experts, and maintenance personal involved?
  • Are‌ ‌there‌ ‌compatibility‌ ‌or‌ ‌regulatory‌ ‌issues to resolve? ‌If so, who is responsible for ensuring that they are addressed?
  • Are‌ ‌there‌ ‌other‌ ‌avenues‌ ‌that‌ ‌can‌ ‌further‌ ‌save‌ ‌costs? ‌ ‌

Accountability is essential for success. Be sure there are people designated to answer each of these questions, and that the consequences for failing to deliver are well known.

2.‌ Sink or Sequence

It‌ ‌is‌ ‌not‌ ‌uncommon‌ ‌to‌ ‌have‌ ‌15‌ ‌different‌ ‌disciplines‌ ‌working‌ ‌on‌ ‌data‌ ‌center construction‌ ‌at‌ ‌the‌ ‌same‌ ‌time. Tight‌ ‌schedules‌ ‌require‌ ‌that‌ ‌time frames‌ ‌be‌ ‌realistic‌ ‌and‌ ‌that‌ ‌handoffs‌ ‌occur‌ ‌within‌ ‌scheduling‌ ‌tolerances. ‌

‌Individual‌ ‌contractors‌ ‌are‌ ‌not‌ ‌necessarily‌ ‌aware‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌big‌ ‌picture‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌project‌ ‌timeline. They can be looking at the same set of construction drawings but interpret priorities and schedules very differently from the construction manager. Coordinating tradespeople and tasks isn’t just a task for the beginning of a project, it is a living part of project management that must be continually monitored and realigned.

Designate a ‌sequencing‌ ‌specialist‌ who is tasked with ‌understanding ‌all‌ ‌the‌ ‌elements‌ ‌of‌ ‌planning‌ ‌and‌ ‌construction, ‌‌knows ‌delivery‌ ‌schedules, ‌and‌ oversees ‌relationships‌ ‌with‌ ‌contractors‌ ‌and‌ ‌subcontractors‌. The person’s principal job is to ensure ‌that‌ ‌realistic‌ ‌time ‌‌frames‌ ‌are‌ ‌set‌ ‌and‌ ‌commitments‌ ‌kept. ‌

When choosing a partner to help manage data construction project, remember that they are a proxy for you, the owner. That means your needs should always come before the needs of the contractor.

3.‌ Get On the Critical Path

Missed‌ ‌deadlines‌ ‌have‌ ‌a‌ ‌cascade‌ ‌effect. They ‌create ‌delays‌ ‌that‌ ‌build‌ ‌upon‌ ‌each‌ ‌other‌ ‌and collectively ‌throw‌ off ‌the‌ ‌entire‌ ‌delivery‌ ‌schedule. ‌‌Advanced‌ ‌planning‌ ‌is‌ ‌critical‌ ‌to‌ ‌creating‌ ‌realistic‌ ‌deadlines‌ ‌and‌ ‌expectations. ‌‌

Stakeholders‌ must ‌understand‌ ‌what‌ ‌is‌ ‌expected‌ ‌of them and‌ ‌when. They need to agree to deadlines, incentives for exceeding them, and consequences for failing to meet them. Time‌ ‌spent‌ ‌planning‌ and gaining agreement ‌up‌ ‌front‌ ‌pays‌ ‌off‌ ‌in‌ ‌delays‌ ‌avoided‌ ‌later‌. Managing and performing to the critical path brings the project in on schedule and avoids substantial additional costs.

  1. ‌Don’t Get Stuck with the B Team

Complex‌ ‌projects‌ ‌like‌ ‌data‌ ‌centers‌ ‌require‌ ‌thorough‌ ‌definition‌ ‌at‌ ‌the‌ ‌early‌ ‌stages, putting ‌the‌ ‌right‌ ‌people‌ ‌in‌ ‌the‌ ‌right‌ ‌place,‌ ‌and‌ ‌creating‌ ‌the‌ ‌right‌ ‌channels‌ ‌for‌ ‌communication;‌ ‌except‌ ‌handling‌ ‌and‌ ‌enforcement of ‌commitments.‌ Getting this right from initial programming and design to final commissioning of the facility demands a program and project manager with a proven track record.

Be careful of entrusting too much to the general contractor. They are paid a percentage of the cost of the project, which gives them little incentive to rein in costs. Letting the general contractor manage subcontractors can be a case of the fox guarding the hen house. Understand who is best to facilitate the exact needs of your program.

  1. Remain Situationally Aware

Data centers don’t exist in a vacuum – they are part of a community. Local regulations, zoning requirements, community activism, political affiliations, easements, and neighboring business considerations are among the factors that can interfere with project schedules.

Project managers should be aware of the full range of political, regulatory, business, and social issues that need to be addressed prior to completion. Look for partners that have roots in the community and that can satisfactorily address any question the owner might ask about potential barriers to success.

You’re the Boss

When choosing a partner to help manage data construction project, remember that they are a proxy for you, the owner. That means your needs should always come before the needs of the contractor.

Use this guide as a checklist when evaluating prospective partners, and ask how they would approach each of these critical success factors for data center construction. Choose a partner that puts your interests first and isn’t afraid to demonstrate that commitment.

Brett Semans is  Managing Principal at DCi Data Center Infrastructures

About the Author

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