In Appreciation of Geodesic Domes

A new data centre uses a geodesic dome design for maximum energy efficiency.

Aug 19 2014, 2:45pm

Epcot's 'Spaceship Earth' geodesic sphere. Image: Flickr/Jeff Krause

Here's the new data centre at Oregon Health and Science University: 

Image: OHSU

You might be wondering if it's really how a data centre is supposed to look like. After all, it's not a melting rectangular office-type block; it's a lovely geodesic dome.

Far from just being ornamental, industry blog Data Center Knowledge explains it's this shape that OHSU credits for making Data Center West particularly power efficient. According to a release from the university, the building, which was designed by Perry Gliessman and started operations last month, has an efficiency rating "34 percent better than all self-reporting US data centers for 2014."

It's a beautiful example of form following function, if largely because geodesic domes are just really visually pleasing geometries. The architectural design of the geodesic dome was created by American designer-inventor R. Buckminster Fuller (though a few similar domes existed beforehand) and it essentially consists of a spherical shape made out of triangles, with the edges of the triangles coming together to form big circles around the dome. 

If you want to really pander to the neo-futuristic design eye, you can even make a geodesic sphere, like Disney World's Epcot:

Epcot's 'Spaceship Earth' geodesic sphere. Image: Flickr/Jeff Krause

The main advantage? Relative size and strength. Building a dome out of triangles turns out to make for a very sturdy structure. You can use relatively minimal, lightweight materials, and slot them together to make a dome that covers a comparatively large surface area, which appealed to Fuller as an efficient, cost-effective solution. Stress is spread evenly through the triangulated lattice, so the dome doesn't collapse too easily.

In a virtual tour of the new data centre, we're told that "Data Center West's most noticeable feature is a monolithic aluminium geodesic dome that covers the internal structures while delivering superior seismic stability and load bearing capacity for the facility."

Buckminster Fuller was so enamoured of his design he wanted to build a dome two miles in diameter over the whole of Manhattan to regulate weather and pollution—an idea that may sound like sci-fi ridiculousness but has been genuinely touted as solutions to climate change.

Inside the Biosphere 2. Image: Wikimedia/Colin Marquardt

The concept of living in isolation from the external world has inspired other geodesic dome-type buildings too, such as Peter Pearce's closed system "Biosphere 2," once a (failed) self-sufficient research station and now a science lab for the University of Arizona.

If that's not remote enough for you, the strength of the geodesic structure also lent the dome to the 1975 design of the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, which has now been deconstructed. As it's strong and sloped, it's good at shedding heavy snowfall.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Image: Flickr/James Vaughan

Depsite these and other very site-specific projects, geodesic domes never really took off as an everyday housing solution, likely for various issues including the obvious problem with a dome-shaped interior: nothing else is really designed to fit in it or on it, which, as anyone whose ever had a curved wall in their home will know, can make a lot of that great surface area a great waste of space.

But perhaps the most compelling reason a geodesic dome makes sense specifically as a data centre is that it allows air to circulate very effectively around the building. As the Buckminster Fuller Institute explains, "The spherical structure of a dome is one of the most efficient interior atmospheres for human dwellings because air and energy are allowed to circulate without obstruction."

Data centres are renowned for being very demanding on the cooling front, and often use up a lot of dirty energy trying to keep their servers chill. But according to OHSU, Data Center West will largely use ambient air for cooling and has no need for air conditioners. Data Center Knowledge writes that, "There are no air ducts, no chillers, no raised floors or computer-room air handlers. Cold air gets pushed through the servers partially by server fans and partially because of a slight pressure differential between the cold and hot aisles."

It allows up to 750,000 cubic feet per minute of airflow at the velocity of a light breeze.

The building specs explain this further: The dome's large surface area allows plenty of room for air to enter through slats around the bottom of the building, and for warm air to rise and to exit out of ports in the "cupola" (the circular hat on top of the main dome). "It allows up to 750,000 cubic feet per minute of airflow at the velocity of a light breeze," the specs explain. The centre is able to have a power capacity of 3.8 megawatts.

It's not the biggest data centre in the world (or the biggest geodesic dome) at 180 feet in diameter, and sure, it's not in the most challenging climactic environment in Oregon. But according to OHSU, the "Data Dome" is already attracting cash incentives from the local Energy Trust thanks to its energy-efficiency. 

As we continue to produce and use more and more data, thinking out of the box and in spheres instead might just be one idea to reduce the increasing energy suck.