Students Explore How to Create Low-Carbon Server Farms in the Metaverse

Inviting as visions of the metaverse can be—a 3D stroll through Barcelona, avatars kissing, selling your side-hustle NFTs for mad Bitcoin—the real-world price of virtuality is alarmingly high and climbing. Nothing “internet” happens without megatons of hardware, those hot racks of servers in highly secured data centers (DCs) that sprawl in the most unimaginative way across hectares of former farmland. Humans have built more than seven million DCs (around 3,000 in the United States, which has the most) in varying shapes and sizes, but have largely failed to limit the carbon emissions embodied in their building materials and released to generate the enormous amount of electricity necessary to power and cool these structures daily. According to University of Washington (UW) construction management professor Dr. Hyun Woo “Chris” Lee, the entire DC industry accounts for roughly 2 percent of the world’s annual carbon emissions, and in the United States alone, the facilities use as much energy each year as the entire state of California. 

“Demand is spiking and it’s getting worse,” says Lee. “It’s time for us to take action.” 

a rendering of solar panels amounted on a parasol roof
PHOENIX: Determined to find low-carbon ways to cool their data center (DC) in a hot, drought-ridden climate, a team of design students tasked with envisioning a DC for Phoenix, Arizona, decided to use the site’s clay-rich soil for rammed-earth foundation floors and walls. By situating the DC partly underground, they reduced the need for cooling power. Solar panels mounted on a parasol roof serve both as a heat shield and as a renewable energy source for the center’s office space. Image courtesy of University of Washington College of Built Environments.

Drs. Julie Kriegh (lead instructor) and Chris Lee with Jan Whittington, UW College of Built Environments colleagues, spent 2020 doing just that, leading a multidisciplinary studio that challenged architecture students from UW, the University of Arizona, and the University of Pennsylvania to reimagine the modern data center, from design and material use to the role DCs play in our communities, all with the intent of getting to net zero any way they could. Google sponsored the course, offering funding and visiting advisors, and Microsoft hosted a kick-off workshop and sent DC experts to review the students’ work as well.

“We were looking for ways to turn a problem into a solution,” says Kriegh, an architect and UW affiliate professor, who brought Passive House experience and an expertise in sustainability tipping points to the class. “These companies are so large and data center growth is so rapid, they can drive the market with demand for lower-carbon materials,” she says.

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The Metaverse Architecture + Design Awards celebrates the designers and architects dreaming up projects, products and spaces for the virtual realm. Learn more about the MAD Awards, and dive into stories that explore the industry’s new frontier.

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