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18 Oct 16 The Met Office is about to take delivery of one of the world’s most powerful computers and Willmott Dixon is providing the building that will house it. David Taylor reports

The low-profile IT Hall will feature a living wall on its southern elevation
The low-profile IT Hall will feature a living wall on its southern elevation

News last August that, after 93 years, the Met Office is to lose its contract to supply the BBC with its weather forecasts came as a shock to most licence-fee payers: goodness, without their loyal support how would the government’s weather-guessers stay in business?

The fact that most of us only know about the Met Office through the on-screen antics of characters like Michael Fish and Carol Kirkwood conceals the fact that the BBC was just one Met Office client, under a contract worth a relatively modest £3m a year.

Besides keeping the British public informed of “areas of high pressure bringing fine, settled weather in to the Southeast” (and providing someone to blame when it then proceeds to piss down in Tunbridge Wells), the Met Office has long played a vital role in both government and business as a resource for detailed meteorological data.

That resource is about to be boosted with the commissioning of a powerful new supercomputer – the Met Office’s third – which will process hundreds of thousands of weather readings sent in from all over the world. According to the Met Office its new computer, manufactured by Seattle-based Cray Supercomputers, will be one of the 25 most powerful computers in the world.

Housing and operating such a remarkable piece of kit requires an equally one-off building. This is currently under construction at Exeter Science Park, alongside the M5 just north of the city and linked to the main Met Office campus via a footbridge over the motorway.

Designed by architect Stride Treglown with concept design by Atkins, the building – and its accompanying office building next door – is being built by main contractor Willmott Dixon under a £20m NEC Option A design/build contract, procured through Scape, the government-owned body that describes itself as a “built environment specialist offering a full suite of national frameworks and design solutions”.

The computer itself (which will comprise a battery of scores of separate server modules linked together) will be housed in the IT Hall, a low single-storey building which looks even lower than usual due to the fact that its floor slab sits 1m below the surrounding ground.

This is to accommodate the extensive underfloor M&E equipment; the computer sits on a raised access floor and there’s almost as much going on below as there is above.

The new supercomputer will sit on a raised access floor over this complex network of pipes. M&E dominates the IT Hall
The new supercomputer will sit on a raised access floor over this complex network of pipes. M&E dominates the IT Hall

A complex network of insulated pipework for the computer’s cooling system, together with pipes for the gas suppression system, covers the entire space beneath the access floor. Linking these services up to the computer itself will be no mean feat, explains Willmott Dixon’s building manager, Kristian Cartwright:

“All the pipework is metric. But the computer’s American, so everything’s in Imperial. It would be almost impossible to make the connections by measuring distances, so instead Cray has given us a huge stencil. When the floor’s installed, we’ll roll the stencil out and it’ll identify the cut positions in the raised floor,” he explains.

Data centres are notorious for consuming prodigious amounts of energy and the Met Office’s supercomputer is especially energy-intensive.

“There are two separate 11kVA supplies – one for backup – plus batteries and generators. They can’t risk a power cut,” says Cartwright.

The uninterrupted power supply (UPS) is controlled by two independent UPS rooms – “quite different from most commercial office buildings”, comments Cartwright. Similarly, there are two communications rooms which contain the equipment that harnesses the computer calculations and feeds data to the main campus over the M5. They too are independent of each other to ensure uninterrupted operation.

None of these operations rooms is designed to be manned and there are no offices or desks located in the building. Instead it’s a veritable celebration of mechanical and electrical equipment. The distinctive sloping façade conceals a high roof parapet so the extensive roof-mounted equipment cannot be seen from the ground.

“The parapet also means that people can work on the roof without the need for any fall-protection,” explains Cartwright.

The people using the computer will occupy the building next door, known as the “Collaboration Building”. This bizarrely-shaped two-storey glass-and-steel structure is hexagonal in cross-section when viewed from the front; from the side it is a parallelogram, the front elevation leaning in and the rear leaning out at an angle of 60o.

The shape and appearance of the building, according to Atkins, which produced the concept design, was inspired by the 2010 sci-fi film Tron. It will mimic the film’s distinctive turquoise neon strip-lighting around the façade’s perimeter and “bring a spark of science fiction to the Westcountry,” according to the Atkins blurb.

Not surprisingly, this unconventional shape brings with it certain technical challenges for the contractor. The angled facades mean that the building’s mass is concentrated on a relatively small footprint. “Therefore the foundations, which are mass concrete, really are massive,” says Cartwright.

Luckily the ground is very stable, though also very soft. It consists of the area’s distinctive bright red sand, clearly visible to drivers on the M5 as they pass through cuttings further south. This material – well on the way to becoming sandstone – is easy to excavate but unlike most alluvial material is sufficiently cohesive to resist collapse. “It’s very high quality, too,” says Cartwright. “You could dig it straight out of the ground and sell it in bags at your local builders’ merchant.”

The substantial overhang of the building’s facades poses another significant challenge when it comes to installing the glass and zinc cladding, from Gloucester-based specialist Central Cladding. All the fittings and finishes beneath the ceiling, including the Western Red Cedar soffit, supplied by Hunter Douglas, need to be finished before the cladding goes in. “That’s because we’ll have no access to the soffit once the cladding’s installed,” explains Cartwright.

The building itself is designed for BREEAM “Excellent” certification and sustainability is an important aim of the whole project, despite its enormous energy consumption. The campus itself will be contained within traditional Devon banks and planted with rare Devon and Cornish plants. “Biodiversity is very high on the Met Office agenda,” comments Cartwright.

The collaboration Building's angular design is a challenge for the contractor
The collaboration Building's angular design is a challenge for the contractor

The rural-idyll effect is currently being given an extra boost by the presence of several chickens that can be seen scratching contentedly in the dirt behind Willmott Dixon’s site office. These are former battery hens, rescued by one of the site operatives. The liberated hens are now showing their gratitude by ensuring that the team is self-sufficient in eggs for the traditional morning fry-up. Cartwright says they have no plans to produce their own bacon just yet.

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Country living: Willmott Dixon's site team is self-sufficient in eggs
Country living: Willmott Dixon's site team is self-sufficient in eggs

As of April 4th, 2016, all government building schemes require the implementation of Building Information Modelling (BIM) at Level 2 and of course the new Met Office supercomputer project is no exception. “BIM is hugely important in a complex building and here the Collaboration Building is extremely fiddly, especially with the steelwork and cladding interfaces,” says Cartwright.

Together with early contractor involvement, BIM has also been vital to the project’s evolution, with a significant amount of value-engineering required to deliver a buildable solution within the constraints of programme and budget.

"BIM is hugely important," says Willmott Dixon's building manager Kristian Cartwright
"BIM is hugely important," says Willmott Dixon's building manager Kristian Cartwright

“The original concept for the IT Hall was a concrete frame with Sika 350mm Watertight concrete retaining walls and roof with single-ply membrane and Shackerley granite rainscreen cladding,” says Cartwright. This was both expensive and time-consuming, he adds.

Willmott Dixon’s alternative meant a complete change of direction: instead of concrete, a steel frame (fabricated by Haley Engineering, which also supplied the steelwork for the Collaboration Building) was specified, with a pre-insulated Kingspan cladding and roof structure replacing the expensive concrete cladding. Unchanged is the plan to install a ‘living wall’, supplied by specialist Biotecture UK, on the south-facing elevation.

In collaboration with M&E contractor NG Bailey, Willmott Dixon also shaved substantial costs from the M&E package through such contingencies as opting for aluminium, rather than copper, for the busbar system.

Cost savings on M&E were especially significant on this project, says Cartwright: “Normally, M&E accounts for about 5% of the contract value; here it’s more like 50%,” he says.

Despite the complexity of the project, progress has been steady and the scheme remains on schedule. The IT Hall is due for completion by 5th August, while the Collaboration Building should be finished by the end of September.

When, later this year, it commissions its new supercomputer, the Met Office – already the world’s most famous weather forecasting agency - will cement its position as arguably the world’s most capable. And although the BBC has dropped it from its shortlist of bidders for the forecasting contract, all is not lost.

The successful bidder for the BBC contract has not yet been announced but, ironically, whoever it is will almost certainly source a large amount of its data from the Met Office’s new supercomputer.

The Collaboration Building contains many 'fiddly' materials interfaces, says Willmott Dixon building manager Kristian Cartwright
The Collaboration Building contains many 'fiddly' materials interfaces, says Willmott Dixon building manager Kristian Cartwright

Number crunching

The new £97m supercomputer is designed to help the Met Office remain a world leader for climate and weather analysis.

It will enable forecast updates every hour and will provide very high-detail weather information for precise geographical areas – for example, by applying very high resolution (+/-300m) models, it could accurately determine the risk and timing of fog over airports.

The supercomputer’s sophisticated forecasting ability is expected to deliver £2bn of socio-economic benefits to the UK by enabling better advance preparation and contingency plans to protect people’s homes and businesses.

The Met Office says its supercomputer will be 13 times more powerful than the system it currently uses and will be able to perform more than 16,000 trillion calculations per second.

It will also have 120,000 times more memory than a top-end smartphone, according to the Met Office – but it will weigh 140 tonnes, the equivalent of 11 double-decker buses.

Just in case you were wondering, 120,000 top-of-the-range iPhone 6s would weigh about 15.5 tonnes – a couple of tonnes more than one of the new London Routemasters. And they would only cost about £84m (without the bulk discount).

But of course we’re not comparing Apples with apples…

Willmott Dixon goes west  

In April Willmott Dixon signalled its intention to secure more major projects in the South West by opening a new office in Exeter to provide a platform for growth.

The new Met Office supercomputer building is undoubtedly the company’s most high profile Westcountry project so far but, in the three years since making its first foray into the region, the contractor has delivered four schools in Plymouth and a free school in Exeter.

The new office is expected to create a number of local jobs over the coming months; around 10 people will be based there permanently and roughly the same number will also use the office when working on local sites. Director of operations John Boughton will head up the Exeter team.

Neal Stephens, Willmott Dixon’s managing director for the region, said that, with numerous projects in the pipeline, the time is right to establish a base in the South-West. And the company is committed to working with the local supply chain: “We’re making a strong commitment to local spend, with over 65% of project budgets designated to companies within a 35 mile radius of a scheme, ensuring investment stays local to sustain jobs and support regional prosperity,” said Stephens.

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