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Serious abot data

buildings - At its Experian Data Centre, Sheppard Robson had to create a high-security building that was also a congenial workplace

Experian's new Data Centre is a product of our increasing reliance on IT - it is a company providing large organisations with outsourced data storage and processing services.

This is no mere emergency back-up, but part of these organisations' minute-by-minute business with demanding service-level agreements. For the data operations, the big issues are reliability and security (which explains why the floor plan we publish is only schematic). For the 120 or so people working in the building, the task for architect Sheppard Robson was to make their workplace as congenial as possible, without compromising the data functions.

Located on the Ruddington Fields Business Park in the Green Belt 8km south of Nottingham, the building conforms to the business park's rules of a maximum of two storeys and 30 per cent site coverage. Fronted by reed-bed planting, it gives an initial impression of a better class of business building. Closer inspection reveals secure fencing and tight control of vehicle entry to the site.

Either side of the glazed entrance of the striking, 170m frontage is a stacking of 9m-long precast elements, interspersed with strip windows in a deliberate evocation of punched paper tape. Although these windows read as shallow strips outside, in the two-storey height space within, the lower ones work well as conventional windows. (Although the business park height limit relates to two typical storeys, the whole building is designed as a single tall storey. ) The strip windows provide plentiful light from this north facade, supplemented by rooflighting in this first, lower-security zone, which runs the length of the building. The resulting sense of lightness is enhanced by the wall beyond being largely glass, though it is also a security barrier that creates a corridor behind.

To the west of the entrance, a cafÚ area provides a relaxed retreat for staff, most of whom work here during the day, although some shift to provide a 24/7 operation. The cafÚ is close to the main planted areas, which are readily accessible to staff. To the other side of the entrance is a long run of general offices, document production and other less-critical operations.

Directly behind the entrance is what the client calls the Command Bridge - a bridge in the Star Trek sense of a command room rather than a span. It is both structurally and visually the secure heart, treated as a separate volume, clad in 3 x 7m curved, dark grey, concrete panels. Their rebated surfaces hide the joints and set up a smaller, tile-like grid more suited to the scale of the interior.

Inside this windowless volume are computer desks and meeting rooms. The claustrophobia is mitigated by the use of a stretched-fabric ceiling that is backlit in response to rooftop sensors, providing a slowly changing simulation of outdoor lighting conditions. Air conditioning here and in the front zone is by displacement with chilled ceilings (fan coils elsewhere).

By contrast, to its west, the technical office is 4m high and fully glazed on its west and south. This office is column-free, as are the 27m-span computer rooms to the east. These are highly serviced but otherwise undifferentiated spaces. There is a race-track circulation band around each for bringing in new equipment. Furthest east is the delivery bay with its new-equipment proving facility, and the plant, which is massive and backed up to provide redundancy for every critical function.

Running the equipment in controlled conditions is, of course, highly plant-intensive, with statistics such as 3km of chilled water piping. Much plant is modular, both for security of operation and to allow it to be expanded. As the building diagram shows, there is the potential to extend the technical office, computer equipment and plant areas toward the south by up to 50 per cent.

While we will never get to know exactly what this data centre is like to work in, the technical office and whole front zone at least are more expansive than your average office, a compensation, and release, for those in the Command Bridge or the windowless, warehouse-like computer rooms. It is difficult to see how Sheppard Robson could have struck a more humane balance between the conflicting demands of open working and closed security.

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