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September 2013

Data center construction: site development, permits and zoning

By Site development

Shawn Mills is a tech entrepreneur, founding member and president of Green House Data. You can find him on Twitter at @tshawnmills.

SHAWN MILLS
Greenhouse data

This series of articles follows the process of developing a new data center, focusing on how small operators can build energy-efficient facilities without the resources of large companies. Previous entries have included planning for expansion, selecting a site, finding incentives and deciding if a real estate and / or design partner is right for you and designing your new facility.

Once the design wheels are spinning, it’s time to work with state and local governments on site development, permits, and zoning. A lot of people are moaning about the politics involved, but it can actually be a rewarding chance to engage your community and also improve business relationships.

Check under each stone for incentives

After selecting a site, you should contact the local government to see if there are any additional development incentives. In the case of Green House Data, it has been very enjoyable to work with the Cheyenne Town Building and Development Office. We’ve all heard stories about the permit process and jumping through hoops to get there. In the Compass Data Center building series here on Data Center Knowledge, meetings seem woefully boring. They certainly can be. Mr. Curtis also makes an important point when he describes the process as not being decided on technical merits, but on a subjective basis. The technical aspects of the building are definitely discussed, but often this process is as much about forging relationships as it is about tackling the nuts and bolts.

Choosing a location with “incentive” data centers can work your way again here. These estates want your business and they will do whatever they can to partner up. To start with, Cheyenne’s economic development entities like Cheyenne LEADS and the Wyoming Business Council helped us acquire the land at a very competitive price. Because we’re aligned with our business goals (we want a new facility, they want more jobs and industries), local managers can actually help everything go easier when they are working, even though the State and city allow it. This strong working relationship has helped us overcome schedule challenges and has been invaluable in helping us sort through documentation, ensure meetings are productive, and keep track of many details of this great project.

Stay on top of the planning

Whether you have a sympathetic or indifferent local government, you should always be prepared to tackle lengthy documents and meetings. Missing deadlines can cost you weeks because everything is on a schedule. Each municipality will have different processes, but there are frequently some overall similarities. In Cheyenne, it goes more or less as follows, including the expected timelines:

  • Annexation: If necessary, land adjacent to existing towns may need to be annexed (up to 5 months)
  • Decking: Platting is the subdivision of plots. The process can be divided into preliminary and final stages (3-5 months)
  • Zoning: Different areas of cities are zoned for different purposes like residential, industrial, etc. If the area needs to be changed for your use, this requires public notice, application, multiple commissions / council approval (3 months)
  • Sitemap: Site plan reviews are typically required for new construction and analyze access, parking, landscaping, drainage report, traffic survey, setbacks, etc. If you request an exemption, an additional period applies (10 days to 6 weeks)
  • Examination of the construction plan: Construction plans are subject to a specific service and are chargeable. They can be revised at any time during the development process and must include a ‘plot plan’, an extended site plan (3 weeks minimum)
  • Examination of the construction plan: The technical drawings of the development site are checked by a separate office (2 weeks minimum)
  • Classification permit: If the site requires grading, a separate permit should be obtained and the plans should be reviewed. This involves a request and costs (2 weeks minimum)
  • Passage permit: For development within the city right-of-way, a separate permit is required, with its own application and fees.
  • Building permit: This must be obtained before starting any construction, can only be issued to a licensed contractor, and requires application, fees and approval of the construction plan and site plan.
  • Sign the permit: If you plan to erect road signs, a separate application and permit is required.
  • Site map Certificate of conformity: Once the site plan is approved, you can obtain this certificate, which allows you to obtain a certificate of occupancy.

Phew! It’s a long list, and while many steps may overlap, it takes a long time. With almost every step requiring its own application, licensing, and review process, there are plenty of dates to follow. Most of the exam sessions involved take place on specific dates due to public notice or other factors, which means that it’s critical that you stay on top of your schedule.

Codes: the key to approval

For construction and site plans, local building codes will be critical to your success. The required codes are likely listed on your municipality’s website, and most cities adhere to international building codes (including residential / mechanical / plumbing / electrical and so on).

As you have designed your facility with your development partners, you should have a good understanding of building code requirements, which often conflict with your infrastructure needs. Home inspectors and permit approvers focus more on the safety of people than on the efficiency of your building. Be sure to discuss many of your features with your designers so you can explain your reasoning to the authorization and inspection teams.

Now that you’ve won the permitting process, it’s finally time to start building! Our next entry will finish things off as we innovate and begin construction.

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