The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides products and services ranging from daily weather forecasts, severe storm warnings and climate monitoring to fisheries management, coastal restoration and the support of marine commerce. Part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA’s roots date back to 1807, when a Survey of the Coast was first established. Since then, NOAA has evolved to maintain a presence in every state and has emerged as an international leader on scientific and environmental matters. Its mission, to understand and predict changes in Earth’s environment and conserve and manage coastal and marine resources, provides a comprehensive understanding of the global ecosystem.

Construction of NOAA’s David Skaggs Research Center was completed in Boulder, Colo., in the mid-1990s. The original project was designed to consolidate NOAA’s Boulder and Denver research laboratories, operational centers and offices into one facility.

Recently, as NOAA began the process for the procurement of the next-generation research and development supercomputer for work performed at the Skaggs Center, it became apparent that the organization needed an additional data center facility. NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory’s Global Systems Division was approaching maximum capacity within its existing facilities, and it was decided that a new 2,060-square-foot computer room, built to handle the rigorous environmental and electrical demands of a high-performance computer, would enable the center to better produce small- and large-scale forecast models for discoveries in the atmospheric, oceanic and hydrologic sciences.

Getting the contract

St. Andrews Construction Services Corp., headquartered in Eastlake, Colo., was awarded its first government contract in 2003 at the U.S. Air Force Academy. After completing that project, the company established a long-term relationship with the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA), which owns the Skaggs Research Center.

“We have been performing work on about 50 contracts in multiple GSA facilities over the past three years, including a few smaller electrical projects in the Skaggs Center,” said Rusty Gonzales, president.

Consequently, the GSA approached St. Andrews in 2005 to be the prime and electrical contractor for the new computer room. According to John Shea, project manager for the GSA, St. Andrews was solicited for the project on a negotiated bid basis based on its past performance and its good standing with the Small Business Administration (SBA) as a certified 8(a) minority and disadvantaged company.

“St. Andrews performed well on a previous data center project in the Skaggs building and demonstrated their capability as a highly qualified and professional electrical contractor,” Shea said.

The home team

In conjunction with the GSA, St. Andrews put together a team of companies that could deliver the necessary expertise and that had the ability to work well together.

“The most common denominator of successful projects is a good team,” Gonzales said. And St. Andrews has developed successful relationships with all the team members that worked on NOAA’s new computer room. For example, over the last decade, St. Andrews worked with the architect, OZ Architecture, Denver, on a number of electrical projects in various GSA-owned facilities and office buildings. The company’s relationship with the mechanical designer headquartered in Lakewood, RMH Group Inc., goes back more than 20 years, with the two companies working on well over 50 projects. And during the past three years, St. Andrews and the mechanical contractor, U.S. Engineering Co., Loveland, Colo., have worked together on energy management system upgrades at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

“From the GSA representative on the project to the architect, engineer, and all the subcontractors, the team worked well together and kept the lines of communication open throughout the project,” said Steve Wren, project manager.

Scope of work

As prime contractor for the project, St. Andrews was responsible for ensuring the architectural elements of the new $2 million computer room, created out of basement space, were completed as specified, including the metal framing for the main data room, the drop ceiling, the raised computer floor with 2-foot stanchions and the vinyl composition tile flooring. In addition, the company oversaw the mechanical installation of the fire sprinkler modifications, ductwork, the four computer room air conditioners, and the new sump pump pits that ensure any leaks from the chilled water system drain outside of the room and away from the computers and servers.

As the electrical contractor, St. Andrews was responsible for installing the predesigned electrical power distribution, uninterruptible power supply (UPS), lighting and fire alarm and security systems. The electrical power originated from 800- and 1,000-amp breakers in existing switchgear, which company electricians ran through one 400- and one 500-kVA UPS to four transformers that step down the voltage.

“Three of the transformers had to be installed onto engineered stands because the electrical room could not be built big enough to mount all of them on the floor,” said Paul Valenzuela, superintendent. One 600-amp main distribution panel and six 900-amp disconnects then feed the 120/208-volt power to the server racks and provide for miscellaneous power requirements. Lighting is relatively simple. Workers installed 2-by-2 and 2-by-4 dimmable fluorescent fixtures, which were split between emergency power and regular power. Security for the room, although not complicated, is state-of-the-art, with keypads for access, automatic door locks and security cameras to monitor activity.

Necessary cold front

“Seventy percent of the cooling from the air conditioning units is delivered into a cold aisle from under the floor, with the rest furnished by traditional overhead cooling modules,” Wren said. The 17 high-density overhead cooling units are controlled by two control cabinets and pumps.

“The main controls for all of the equipment items were tied into new control panels, which were then interfaced with the existing building automation system,” said Billy Gomez, project foreman.

Preventing a fire storm

The fire alarm and detection system for the room was the most involved and complex. The system includes smoke detectors, pull stations, duct detectors, and fire damper control as well as the typical notification devices with horn strobes. The sensitivity of the equipment to be protected required the use of an extinguishing clean agent retrofit option (ECARO) system, which uses a PVC-piped very early smoke detection apparatus (VESDA) system installed above the ceiling and below the floor for early smoke detection through continual air testing and light measurement, with the information being communicated to the fire alarm control panel. An ECARO system was chosen because it is clean, electrically nonconductive, noncorrosive, free of residue and an environmentally preferred alternative to a Halon system. In addition, an emergency power off (EPO) system was installed that will cut off power to the room if the fire detection system or any of the alarm devices are activated.

Convergence zone

“One important challenge was coordinating the HVAC, general fire alarm, VESDA, ECARO, security and EPO systems because they were all interconnected to some degree,” Wren said. The team spent a great deal of time studying the interconnection diagrams to ensure the plan would work and held a number of discussions with the vendors of each of the systems to guarantee the products would work independently and also would function together.

“The level of planning and coordination that St. Andrews provided enabled any design issues to be addressed in a timely manner and not impact the fast-track project schedule and cost,” Shea said.

Forecast: Success

One of the construction challenges St. Andrews faced was making sure that most of the overhead and underfloor work was performed before the raised floor system was installed.

“There was a significant amount of equipment that is set on the floor, but because of the high-density cooling requirements for the room, most of the mechanical systems had to be installed before the flooring was laid,” Gomez said.

Ensuring the work flowed smoothly required weekly subcontractor meetings to coordinate construction activities and long-term planning with suppliers to ensure lead-times and delivery dates were maintained.

According to Shea, St. Andrews brought together a team of highly qualified and professional subcontractors for the project and delivered a well-coordinated effort.

“The company worked with the GSA, NOAA’s Global Systems Division, and RMH Group in a collaborative effort to bring the project in on time and on budget,” he said.

BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 or darbremer@comcast.net.