Former Texas shopping mall to become workplace Shangri-La

Rackspace uses green concepts to convert mall into data center, office space

An abandoned shopping mall of some 1.2 million square feet in San Antonio is being converted by managed hosting provider Rackspace Inc. into what it hopes will become an ideal workplace, with a rooftop garden, showers for its biking commuters, and individual temperature controls for cubicle dwellers.

Rackspace says it wants to turn the 1970s-era shopping mall, vacant for the past two years and long since replaced by more modern shopping facilities, into a building capable of winning recognition for its green, energy-conserving attributes.

Part of this work involves taking what some may see as a liability -- 18-foot-high ceilings -- and turning them into light-filled assets. The company is doing this in part by putting both the data center and the office space on raised floors. Instead of duct work hanging from the ceiling throughout the offices, the company intends to install the heating and cooling systems under the floor, according to Randy Smith, the real estate manager for Rackspace.

By using raised floors throughout for the HVAC systems, office workers will be able to adjust the temperature of the air that comes up from the floor vent on a cubicle-by-cubicle basis, Smith said. Overhead ducts require larger fans and water pumps and, consequently, use more energy. "It's just a system that has to work a lot harder," Smith said.

Building a new office and data center facility from scratch would have cost about $200 per square foot, but Rackspace believes its approach will cost about 50% less. While the cost of installing an HVAC system in a raised floor has higher upfront costs, Smith said the company expects ongoing operational cost savings of more than 30% compared with an overhead duct system.

About 95,000 square feet will be used for data center space. When this work is completed, Rackspace says it will have more than 265,000 square feet of raised-floor data center space companywide. It has existing facilities in San Antonio, Dallas, Herndon, Va., London and Slough, U.K.

John Engates, chief technology officer at Rackspace, said the company is testing temperature sensors in its laboratories and hopes to have a system that will regulate air temperature in the data center based on equipment needs. "I think we all overcool our data centers to rules of thumb that were created back in the mainframe days," he said.

Engates said the company plans to use barriers, panels and curtainlike dividers to keep hot air that's exhausted from servers from diluting cool air. But he wants to also regulate the temperature in various areas through the use of sensors.

For instance, large sections of the facility used for cable management don't need as much cool air as server spaces, and even there, Engates said, temperatures can be raised to 80 degrees or higher, rather than kept at the more typical 65 to 70 degrees. Although the ability to control temperature variations may save money, another issue that may mitigate variations is the impact on data center employees. "People still have to work in the data center," he said.

Rackspace is considering deploying hundreds of sensors throughout the data center, Engates said, although he noted the technology is still immature and the temperature variations of the equipment are still theoretical.

The company is also investigating solar panels, although much will depend on the ability of the roof to handle the weight load. That is still being determined, Smith said. A rooftop garden is also planned.

The company hopes to gain a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for its facility, Smith said. This designation means that a building project "is environmentally responsible, profitable and a healthy place to live and work," according to the U.S. Green Building Council, a Washington-based nonprofit organization.

Smith said employees are expected to start moving into the facility from its existing San Antonio offices sometime this spring. Workers who commute using an energy-efficient vehicle may get preferred parking, Smith said. One legacy of the former mall will also help the collaborative workplace culture the company tries to foster, said Smith. "Malls, just by their nature, are designed to foster a sense of community," he said.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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