Data centers take the LEED

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For Highmark, the LEED certification has paid off in more ways than one. The new facility, with 86,000 square feet, including 28,000 square feet of raised floor space, is three times the size of the previous building. It represents an upgrade from the old Tier 1 data center to a fully redundant Tier 3 facility, yet the new building consumes about the same amount of energy as the old one.

Wood calls the pursuit of the Uptime Institute's Tier 3 certification for its new data center "two separate thought processes." But are they complementary, given the redundant equipment and power requirements of a Tier 3 data center? LEED has a lot to do with construction and building systems, while the Tier 3 certification has to do with redundancy and sustainability, Wood explains. "Sustainability might be the intersection between the two," he says.

Highmark was also looking for another type of payback: "We bid a lot of contracts, and it was our hope that if we obtained LEED certification, it might help with our business," Wood says. While LEED hasn't been directly responsible for bringing in new business, it does help with government contracts. "They do ask in their bids if your facility is LEED-certified or not," he says.

To make the LEED project work, Wood had to make tough choices to keep within the $29 million construction budget. No additional money was allocated for LEED certification, which in the end added about 1% to the overall cost. "We value-engineered the budget to account for LEED," he says. Highmark was satisfied to earn a silver-level certification, rather than going for the gold. "We could have achieved more points, but it would have cost us the budget," he says.

LEED certification levels

Certified level   26 to 32 points
Silver level   33 to 38 points
Gold level   39 to 51 points
Platinum level   52 to 69 points

"It's a matter of understanding the financial implication of each step," says Gross. While the cost of one point for adding a bicycle rack is negligible, other checklist items Highmark considered cost $1 million or more to implement. For example, he avoided alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power, which he says would have been cost prohibitive. "We also did not buy renewable energy credits, which cost $72,000," Wood says.

Cobb had to make similar decisions. "We had lots of things we talked about, but some of them we didn't do because it wasn't worth the points or operationally spending the money or changing processes," he says. Fortunately, the LEED checklist offers some leeway to pick and choose.

Others say the typical cost of attaining the current level of LEED certification is a bit higher than Highmark experienced when it received its certification early in 2006. Organizations building greenfield data centers should plan on adding about 5% to the overall budget to attain LEED certification, says Gross. Cobb at Fannie Mae estimates that the LEED program added 10 to 15% to its project, although he expects to recover the costs in energy savings within five years. "My operating expense is 20% lower. The extra initial investment is small compared to my return," he says.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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