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The US: mission critical 24 hours a day, seven days a week

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The best thing about a trip to the US is boosting one's vocabulary. There are always new words, expressions and axioms and all of them, it seems, born since you were last there. This time it's not only words but numbers too. For example, it isn't long before you start to believe that every job in the US, from driving to doing homework, is done '24/7' - 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As for new expressions, the demise of the 'Quick burn' dot coms has had a silver lining for architects, at least. Every motivated design firm above minimum size is now working 24/7 on BOOT (build, operate and transfer), projects or else monstrous mission critical data storage buildings - the new electronic fortresses designed to keep businesses operating through typhoon, tornado, terrorist attack and possibly even nuclear war.

This is where the expressions come in. The KISS principle may be old hat, and 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' can practically be attributed to Chaucer, but how about 'the fastest growing business is always the smallest'? Or, 'it's like drinking from a fire hose' - the last being a frequent description of the rate of increase in client demand for extremely secure data storage.

Mission critical buildings are in some ways the US equivalent of the 'hot sites' that were set up in London during the IRA bombing campaign, and particularly in the aftermath of the Canary Wharf bomb which, it has always been rumoured, destroyed several not-sosecure data stores and put the wind up a lot of corporations.

But where the UK 'hot sites' were merely nondescript addresses from which business could continue in the event of computer crashes, fire or terrorist damage at head office, the US mission criticals are upfront pieces of architecture. They may not go to the extreme of allowing naming rights as colleges and hospitals do - 'The Jerry Lewis Mission Critical Building' in big letters across the front, for example - but they are so large, so expensive, and so 'hidden in plain sight' that they invite curiosity in a land where information is free.

Not surprisingly, most US architects see mission criticals in a dramatic light. Like the hideouts of James Bond villains, they are deliberately sited far from fault lines, flood plains, railways, highways and airports, recognisable only by their subtly concealed 'satellite farms'.

Depending on the level of staffing and duplicated equipment needed to protect the 24/7 operational availability of their racks of servers, they can cost eight to 10 times as much as ordinary office floorspace to build. This is partly reflected in their heavy duty construction.

They are proofed against 200 miles per hour winds, and some even have 'sacrificial roofs' designed to blow off if they suffer too much damage - exposing a second roof underneath. They have to be able to generate their own power, not only because they need to be isolated from grid failures but because, in operation, they consume as much electricity as 2,000 homes. All of this equipment gives them a net to gross that is the reverse of any conventional office building. A typical mission critical might have a footprint of 10,000m but only 1,000m 2available for servers and employees.

The place of these buildings in the cosmology of building types is a matter of hot debate. Some maintain that they are the last redoubts of the corporations of the 'old economy', defending the accumulated information of years of monopolistic power as though it were buried treasure. Others point to clients among the surviving 'new economy' dot coms, still trying to attain credibility by fitting themselves into the big picture at last.

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