3 Lessons from Habitat for Humanity for Building Data Centers

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Habitat for Humanity has a vision for the world “where everyone has a decent place to live.” My team and I recently had the privilege of helping realize this goal for one family in Nashville, Tennessee. A bunch of data center professionals may not be experts in building a home, but we were happy to be part of an organization that fosters independence and offers new life chances for deserving families. As I reflected on my Habitat experience, it became clear how the process of building a home is similar to a basic data center design – there are key lessons that can be applied to both scenarios.

Schneider Electric has supported Habitat for Humanity since 2000, donating over $38 million in product and funding $8.3 million to help cover the cost of land, infrastructure, and building materials for projects. Through an automated registration process, the company also makes it easy for us as employees to volunteer. This has resulted in thousands of hours given to countless home sites over the years.

Lesson 1: Start with a Unified Vision

two women discussing data center design in a data centerA Habitat build brings together groups of essentially unskilled workers from different organizations, with diverse backgrounds who meet for the first time to work on a project. They have little in common other than the task at hand. What unifies and drives them is a shared vision.

The objective for us wasn’t simply to make sure four walls stood up and lights turned on and off. For true success, we needed to realize the impact of our undertaking. The crew was introduced to the future homeowner and understanding her story gave us the foundation for our common goal.

Just like it takes a community of people to build a Habitat home, members of the value chain must come together to build a data center. It takes electrical and general contractors, engineers, consultants, equipment manufacturers and more. Everyone must have stated roles and responsibilities, overseen by the right leader.

While data centers are usually built with the end user in mind, it pays to step back and outline objectives. Speed to market might be priority in one situation, whereas hyperscale capacity could be important for another. All stakeholders should be on the same page.

Lesson 2: Create a Well-defined, Standardized Data Center Design

Habitat uses what it calls ‘standard home plans,’ also known as ‘kitting.’ In data centers, we’d leverage reference designs — proven, research-backed plans that outline efficient (sub)system configurations.

Kitting helps Habitat overcome the lack of trade skills in the volunteer base. Supplies, either packaged together, with the right number of rafters for example, or pre-built, such as walls, are on site to make construction easier and faster.

This practice is akin to prefabricated data centers. They are built and tested in a controlled environment and basically delivered ready to be deployed. Kitting in our industry also eliminates waste which reduces cost, preserves skilled resources to help overcome a growing labor shortage and saves time reducing speed to market.

Lesson 3: Collaborate

With a collective purpose and clear strategy, the missing ingredient for success is collaboration. The first two steps help establish a level of trust among (mostly) strangers. Then a strong leader solidifies the group. Habitat assigns a foreman and other experts on site to coordinate and drive a joint effort.

In data centers, we see this cooperation on the rise throughout the value chain. The hyperscale era has changed a previously disconnected dynamic between suppliers, contractors, manufacturers and end users, who now work side by side from the start of a build. Everyone is at the table on day one.

Building Standardization Ensures Success – for a Home or Data Center

The foreman of our Habitat build shared a compelling statistic with us. He said tradesmen often question how the organization can build quality homes with volunteer labor. In fact, Habitat homes are often more well-constructed than those of general home builder. That’s what high standards and teamwork will get you. The same goes for data centers. If the right process is in place, you have a foundation for success no matter who the players are.

One bonus lesson. Getting out of the office ­— out of our industry — made us think differently. Learning across segments helps generate new ideas. Innovation can come from anywhere. For more on how to connect these lessons to your next data center build, check out our guide on practical data center planning and design. 

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