Among the restrained corporate mid-rise towers that makeup Houston’s Energy Corridor—some 20 miles west of downtown along I-10—BP’s Center for High Performance Computing stands out as a remarkably expressive building. Designed by a multi-disciplinary team at HOK, which provided architecture, interior architecture, and MEP and structural engineering services, the three-story, 110-000-square-foot facility houses, according to BP, the world’s largest super computer for commercial research. Its job, of course, is to compute and process geophysical data in the search for hydrocarbons. But the building is more than just a data center. It also accommodates workspace for some 120 geologists and researchers tasked with interpreting the super computer’s output.
“I had designed a number of data centers before,” said Peter Ruggerio, HOK design partner on the project. “Typically they’re only meant to house a few people. But this building had to house some of brightest geologists in the world who need these dedicated servers to find the next sources of energy in the ground; and they wanted them on the other side of the wall. So it’s more of a campus building about the work environment.”
Sited at the northwest corner of BP’s Westlake Campus, the building also served a gateway function to the rest of the company’s installations. HOK took this bifurcated program and oriented the office functions to the north, where they face the campus’ public exposure along I-10 and its feeder road. This north orientation allowed the architects to clad this face entirely in glass without worrying about managing solar heat gain. The servers and their related mechanical kit of cooling towers and plumbing were oriented to the south of the site and encased in an opaque, pre-cast concrete shell, which provided a good insulated front for direct exposure to the intense Texas sun.
The architects developed the language of the building’s exterior by abstracting and pixelating the images of geophysical strata produced by the computer, which the geologists spend their day regarding and interpreting. The undulating ribbons of these images were formalized into undulations in the glass facade and patterning in the surface of the pre-cast exterior panels.
Inside, the architects laid out fairly standard linear office space, which fit well within the cast-in-place concrete structure’s 30-foot column grid. A cascading stair provides access to the computing spaces, which are separated from the office program by a bright yellow wood panel wall. A service corridor surrounds the servers—on floors two and three with mechanical services on the first floor—creating a box within a box that provides a buffer space from the exterior.
Like all data centers, BP’s Center for High Performance Computing consumes a lot of energy, but HOK took what measures it could to provide as efficient a facility as possible. According to the firm, the building’s solar orientation and high-performance electrical and cooling systems deliver a power use effectiveness (a measure of the efficiency of a computer data center derived by dividing total facility energy by IT equipment energy) of 1.35, compared to a global average of approximately 1.85 according to a 2012 Uptime Institute survey.