Mega Data Centres Made with Wood? Big Tech Goes Green

Big Data is driving a surge in construction, with the industry expected to reach US $500 billion over the next decade.

Sat 11 May 24


Giant data centres, more than 20 times larger than they were less than just a few years ago, are in the pipeline with the emergence of AI and machine learning putting massive demand on data storage.

“AI is real,” according to Robin Khuda, the co-founder of AirTrunk, one of Asia-Pacific’s fastest-growing data centre operators, who last year told the AFR that “the level of growth we are seeing right now is something we have not seen in 10 years. It’s remarkable.”

However, whilst the industry, already worth US $194.81 billion, is expected to mushroom over the coming decades, “greening up” the data centre lifecycle, including the design, construction, procurement, operations, maintenance and retirement of equipment, is amongst the most important decisions faced by an industry that must materially reduce its footprint.

Data Centres are set to become one of the world’s largest asset classes – with institutional investors allocating billions of dollars to develop supersized centres – like YouTube’s Data Centres in the US, Belgium, Finland and Singapore. Footage courtesy of Future Mission.

Speaking at Data Center World last month, Priyal Chheda, Sustainability lead for Corgan—North America’s top data centre architect—said the industry is now in a state of flux, with developers struggling to meet ambitious net-zero targets. 

“Work is needed now if targets for 2030 are going to be met,” Ms Chheda said, adding that “instead of focusing on the difficulties, data centre managers should look for opportunities for good return on investment via sustainability measures.” That includes mass timber construction, vital to slashing embodied carbon and meeting net zero targets in North America and worldwide.

Last year, the UN calculated that by replacing steel, concrete, glass and aluminium with timber and bio-based construction materials, the world could lower emissions by up to 40%.

According to Paul Shorthouse, an economic advisor who also serves as managing director for the Circular Economy Leadership Canada initiative, “mass timber is safe, fire-resistant, of comparable strength, lighter weight and can be disassembled and refurbished with relative ease.”

And whilst Ms Chheda warned that mass timber might not be the best option for data halls, she said architects and engineers must collaborate to determine the best areas where timber can be used based on its innate strength, fire resistance, and cost. 

Global architects focused on Data Centre design are now building greater flexibility into design for future growth. However, with a strong steel and concrete focus, developers are looking at non-traditional materials like mass timber to decarbonise the industry. Footage courtesy of Scale.

Where mass timber is not suitable, she said Portland cement substitutes like Blue Planet, which creates net-zero concrete, will be crucial in constructing future centres – increasingly squeezed by green tape.

“Regulations are quickly coming down the pike, and investors often impose sustainable requirements,” said Karen Petersburg, Vice President of Development and Construction at PowerHouse Data Centres.

“There has been a shift from greenwashing towards engaging in legitimate sustainability efforts,” Ms Petersburg said, adding that regulators and institutional investors increasingly expect developers to use products supported by EPDs – a challenge for the traditional construction supply chain.

“We need traceability such as where the copper came from if we are going to change how we think about sourcing, sustainability and recycling,” according to Phill Lawson-Shanks, chief innovation and technology officer at Aligned Data Centres, who added that “concrete alternatives will play a part as concrete is the biggest sink of carbon globally.”


  • Jason Ross

    Jason Ross, publisher, is a 15-year professional in building and construction, connecting with more than 400 specifiers. A Gottstein Fellowship recipient, he is passionate about growing the market for wood-based information. Jason is Wood Central's in-house emcee and is available for corporate host and MC services.


Related Articles