Mortenson Construction – QTS Data Center


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QTS assembled a skilled project team to build its new data center in Chicago.
By Alan Dorich

When QTS Realty Trust Inc. – one of the fastest-growing data center companies in the world – decided to build a location in downtown Chicago, it needed the right development team. “A strong and reliable team is the foundation of our success,” Program Manager of Property Development for QTS Ryan Duncan declares.

“We try to get someone who we can trust and rely on, provide necessary feedback when needed and make changes based on different business decisions,” he says. The company has done just that in its redevelopment of a former Chicago Sun-Times printing plant into a data center.

The 317,000-square-foot structure, built in 1999, will stand two stories and support 134,000 square feet of raised floor, which will encompass 24 megawatts of critical IT power. The first phase of the new facility recently opened in July 2016, with an expansion of the facility underway that will increase capacity to 40 megawatts of critical IT power.

After acquiring the Sun-Times facility in 2014, QTS hired Mortenson Construction as the construction manager, along with lead consulting engineer ESD Inc. and lead architect Corgan Associates. The three previously worked together on multiple data center projects.

The project team also includes electrical contractor Continental Electric Construction Co. and The Hill Group, the project’s mechanical contractor. QTS wisely assembled an experienced team, Mortenson General Manager Andy Stapleton says. “They had the foresight to leverage everyone’s data center expertise and background to arrive at an optimal solution for their customers,” he says.

A Good Fit

Over the years, multiple technology-focused companies looked at turning the former Sun-Times facility into a data center. “However, it took an organization like QTS, with a clear plan and proven track record, to transform the existing building into an industry leading data center,” Stapleton says. Mortenson info box

The data center company has made a habit of retrofitting previously used locations. “We have sites all over the country and a large majority of them have been either repurposed buildings or repurposed data centers,” Duncan says. “This strategy has supported QTS’ success and growth as a company.”

There were multiple reasons that the Sun-Times plant was perfect for QTS, Stapleton says. Proximity to downtown Chicago, access to significant electrical power, fiber connectivity, a robust structure and an efficient building layout all contributed to the successful data center conversion.

For example, a large, precast concrete enclosed warehouse on the building’s south side that used to store paper now serves as “an expansive data hall with high ceilings and large column spacing,” he says. The plant’s central spine, which had housed newspaper printing presses, can now be used for electrical gear, and uninterruptible power supply systems (UPS).

“Once the team developed the vision, I think the pieces fell into place rather well,” Stapleton says.

Finding Clashes

Design started on the data center in the fall of 2014 and continues as the campus is built out. The project has benefited from the use of building information modeling (BIM), Hill Group Senior Project Engineer Courtney O’Connor notes.

After laser-scanning the building, the project team developed 3-D models. “It allows you to find clashes before you have materials on site,” she says. “You can build the job before actually building it.”

BIM enabled Mortenson and the project team to determine whether or not electrical and mechanical systems would actually fit in the data center. “We worked closely with ESD, Corgan and QTS’s facilities group and leveraged the modeling effort to ensure that building systems not only fit, but were serviceable and maintainable,” Stapleton recalls.

BIM also helped the project team plan for the future expansion of the QTS Chicago campus. “Planning the installation of complex mechanical and electrical systems inside an existing structure requires detailed coordination,” says John Martinez, project executive with Continental Electric Construction Co.

“Weekly BIM coordination meetings were key to ensuring the overall design fit within the building constraints. The layout of the entire facility was completed on day one,” Martinez says.

As QTS continues its modular deployment of mechanical and electrical equipment, the project is already designed to allow this growth. “That is essential to the ongoing success of the project,” Stapleton adds.

BIM also helps with team collaboration over long distances. Although several team members are based outside of Chicago, “It allowed us to stay on schedule without being potentially slowed down because someone wasn’t able to visualize what was happening,” Stapleton says.

Duncan agrees. “QTS is a global company, so our most important resource – our people – are spread out,” he says, noting that the company has embraced the use of BIM. “It’s almost been a prerequisite of moving forward on site.”

Zero Injuries

Work began on the data center site in early 2015 and the project team is currently delivering the next phase of expansion. Through it all, the project team has maintained a strong safety record and has gone nearly 500 days without injuries. Mortenson has implemented their Zero Injury program for more than 20 years, Stapleton says.

As part of this program, “Everyone is empowered and obligated to stop work if they see an unsafe act,” he says. “All the contractors and trade partners on site have been brought into the safety program, as have our customers.”

Not only has Duncan spoken at site safety meetings, but so has QTS Chairman and CEO Chad Williams. “It’s a cultural thing,” Stapleton says. “Caring about our people, planning the work and leveraging technology to improve outcomes all contribute towards a successful safety program. You have to make it personal.”

Sustainable Strategies

The team is using green methods to build the data center. “We are seeking LEED certification for the facility,” ESD Vice President Michael Mar reports. “We implemented sustainable strategies and specified efficient equipment to obtain a low power usage effectiveness (PUE), which is an energy ratio of total power consumed in your facility compared to total IT computing power.”

Sustainable strategies included recycling as many materials as the project team can from the original building, including air-handling units, copper wiring, steel pipes and mechanical ductwork. The team also has integrated reclaimed wood from another building for paneling, used low-VOC materials and replaced the plant’s ballast roof with a white reflective roof.

The lighting system in the data hall portion of the building also reflects this goal. “Lights can be dimmed to lower light levels or shutoff automatically in areas currently not occupied,” Mar describes.

The center’s cooling system will take advantage of the Chicago weather, which can provide free cooling for a majority of the year. The heat coming off of the computers is drawn through spinning heat recovery wheels, which transfer the heat to the colder outdoor air. Free cooling is achieved even when outdoor temperatures are about 80F.

The energy use of the heat wheel systems is less than traditional chiller or computer room AC unit systems, and the use of water for cooling purposes, which is becoming increasingly scarce and expensive, is not required.

“It also adds a very scalable construction to the data hall,” Mar adds. “For example, the initial installation can be minimal to save cost. As the building is occupied and the load grows, the cooling units and infrastructure can be added in small increments, and only as needed.”

Methods to Lean On

The project team is utilizing lean manufacturing techniques on the data center project. In addition to virtual design and construction processes, the builders use project management methods that promote collaboration over micromanagement.

The companies also have used pre-fabrication to improve quality and safety. “We definitely try to leverage prefabrication on the electrical side whenever possible. Not only does it improve the safety of our workers, but it is more cost effective for QTS,” Martinez says, noting that Continental has used this strategy throughout the data center.

O’Connor adds that Hill prefabricated its ductwork, which is sent to the site in assemblies. “We try to manufacture pieces as large as possible,” she says, noting that the steel components used for data hall ductwork supports were fabricated in the company’s own local facility and sent to the site to facilitate a safe and efficient installation.

Setting the Standard

Mortenson and the other project team members have learned lessons on the data center that they will be able to apply to other projects, including the development of project goals. “These six items were developed as a team,” Stapleton recalls, noting that the companies sought to go beyond the typical objectives.

“We wanted to go deeper than being on time and on budget,” he says, noting that these goals not only included “safety and operational optimization,” but also to “be flexible and nimble,” particularly when it came to meeting QTS’ schedules.

“This isn’t just a phased development,” Stapleton says. “This is dependent on QTS’ needs and how they address [clients’ expectations]. The entire team is committed to embracing the needs of QTS and collectively helping QTS exceed the expectations of their customers. We’re all in.”

The established goals also required the team to “actively listen and communicate,” so that all team members would have a respectful and collaborative approach to communication. In addition, the team sought to “seek out win-win situations,” so that they were committed to the success of all team members.

The hard work has paid off, since QTS is pleased with the work of the team, Duncan says. In fact, the project has set new standards for the company. “It’s a stake in the ground for us now,” he says. “When we talk about how we want other sites to go, we look back and we say, ‘What did we do in Chicago?’”

The “team first” attitude carried by the contractors also has affected the way QTS interviews future partners, Duncan adds. “The more success we have in Chicago, the more it drives home the characteristics of the people we are interviewing from other companies. QTS believes we are a company that is ‘Powered By People,’ and so it only makes sense that our sites are developed by exceptional people and teams,” he says.

“We select our partners based not only on their company experience, but the individuals who will work on our sites,” he says. “We want to know we have good people working for us and with us, and we’ll get to the finish line together.”

But QTS and its project team still have more work to do before they reach the finish line of the Chicago data center, Duncan says. “There is more work around the corner,” he says. “We’re knee deep in it right now. We’re not finished on this site yet.”

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