Welcome to your friendly neighbourhood server farm

WZMH Architects solved unique design challenges in building a new data centre for an urban setting

Rendering of WZMH Architects' new Parliament St. data centre

(WZMH Architects)

The occupants of WZMH Architects’ latest project have a very specific set of needs: a cool, dry environment with no sunlight. But the firm that dreamed up the CN Tower hasn’t suddenly started designing for vampires; WZMH’s 43A Parliament Street building is set to become one of the first major data centres in downtown Toronto.

Large server farms are typically built outside urban areas where there’s room to spread out. But the Parliament Street project is located in the heart of the historic Distillery District, a neighbourhood that demands something more from its buildings than the drab beige walls and concrete monoliths associated with server farms.

“As soon as you stack a data centre, you’re left with designing essentially a box that doesn’t have any windows, so you have to find creative ways to make an interesting façade that fits into the neighbourhood,” explains Nicola Casciato, a principal at WZMH.

The Toronto firm got around that problem by putting the handful of people who will work in the building front and centre. “Wherever possible we try and put those workspaces against the exterior wall at the ground level so that at least when you’re walking past the building at ground level, you can see people working,” Casciato explains. “It kind of looks like an office building, except that when you look up, it doesn’t have windows.”

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Big data is a big business—hosting other companies’ files and catering to their hosting needs is making the Ciscos and Amazons of the world rich. WZMH won’t say which firms will see their data stored at the centre, but lead tenant Equinix’s global clients include big tech names like Foursquare and Etsy.

Parliament Street is likely to see more financially-minded occupants, however; the facility’s proximity to Bay Street makes it an ideal location for traders looking for that millisecond advantage. “There’s a reason why you want to be downtown in places like Toronto, Chicago, New York,” hints Zenon Radewych, another WZMH principal.”You’re servicing a certain type of client that needs to be in very close proximity to those exchanges and also in close proximity to those telecom [links] that connect these downtown cores with other financial centres.”

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The downtown core isn’t about to be invaded by banks of servers; Radewych points out that at least three-quarters of his firm’s data business is still in industrial and suburban areas, for clients that don’t need the kind of speed or access that Parliament Street can provide.

And those that do will have a tougher time getting approval than they might have in suburban industrial parks.WZMH had to go through a design committee, Waterfront Toronto and the city’s urban planners before the first shovel could go in, a feat they managed in an almost-unprecedented 90 days. A downtown location also present security challenges, according to Radewych, because urban buildings don’t have the large setbacks and controlled access roads that a more spacious plot of land would provide.

Still, 43A Parliament Street is set to open its server doors to a flood of data some time in the fourth quarter of 2014.