Permitting challenges for data centres across Europe

As he attends DCD Europe’s virtual conference, Hyphen’s director and data centre specialist, Tony Luck, shares his insights into local planning regulations and how these vary depending on location.

With a network of offices across Europe and Latin America, Hyphen has obtained over 100 permits for data centre projects and has developed a unique perspective on the challenges that working in each country presents.

The huge current demand for more capacity means that reducing the time from site acquisition to having an operational facility is becoming ever more critical. Obtaining permits can consume a large part of this timeframe so understanding how best to expedite the permitting process is invaluable. Of course, Europe is a collection of individual countries and whilst the normalisation of standards has gone a long way to achieve a common EN framework for building components, no such coordination has taken place with the permitting process. The process is different in every country and can be even more complex in some countries such as Germany & Switzerland, where the process and standards vary from region to region.

Building permits:

In terms of the building permit there are generally two elements. Firstly, there is principle of use, size, access, aesthetics and environmental impact, where a design needs to be developed to around 30% to gain approval. Where countries have detailed zoning guidance outlining permitted use, massing and other key parameters, establishing an acceptable design can be far quicker and simpler than in countries where restrictions are much more loosely defined or are subjective. This is generally the case in the UK, where more consultation with the local authority and other stakeholders can be required to establish the feasibility of a scheme and maximum capacity of a site.

The second aspect of a building permit generally deals with the full technical design including structural, building physics, life safety and MEP systems. For this stage a comprehensive, full design can be required to demonstrate compliance. This obviously takes time to prepare.

In countries such as the UK and Ireland there is a separate approval processes for each of these elements. Generally, a permit can be issued for the first stage, allowing a start on site whilst the full technical design is completed. In other countries such as Italy, the Netherlands and France, there is a single process which takes far more design effort, cost and time up-front in order to submit the application and start on site. And then of course there is the time it takes for the authority to process an application. This varies widely between countries and is sometimes open-ended. In France, there is a statutory period which must be adhered to whereas in other countries such as the UK the determination period is a target which is often exceeded. In Frankfurt, data centre buildings are classified as “special buildings”, whereby there is no maximum statutory period for determination of a building application.

Environmental permits:

The building permit is not the only permit that is required for most data centre developments nor is it the most onerous. Environmental permits deal with many issues, including emissions, fuel storage, ecology and noise and the process can take 6 months or longer, a major part of which is determined by the level of emissions. Depending on the level, the process is determined by Pan-EU regulations under the Medium Combustion Plant Directive (MCPD), the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) & EU ETS schemes. EU member states have interpreted these directives into local legislation and as a result there is far more consistency across Europe than with building permitting. However, unfortunately, it is also a consistently longer process. Reducing the initial phase(s) of the build to be below the environmental thresholds can be a strategy to reduce this timeframe, but the nuances of this approach is not accepted in all jurisdictions. In Frankfurt for instance, each independent system may be treated separately so provided each DC has less than 50MW thermal output the full BIMSch regulations (local IED Permit) is not triggered and each DC on a campus can be treated separately. Whereas in the UK, the Environment Agency would consider the campus capacity as a whole.

How can we speed up the permitting process?

Fortunately, during Hyphen’s many years of experience, we have identified ways to reduce the permitting timeline and start on site sooner. In the Netherlands for instance we have recently phased the permitting for a major new data centre development such that the first phase fell below the on site fuel storage threshold for a full environmental permit. This meant that a simpler type B permit could be gained quickly, allowing a start on site within half the time of the full process. Construction could progress whilst the permitting of the remaining phases was achieved.

In many countries it is also possible to obtain permits for groundworks including remediation and levelling for instance, ahead of the main permits. We are currently using this approach in Madrid to expedite the build process. Of course, this and other approaches carry risk, however we have found that early and thorough consultation with the authorities can do much to mitigate this.

In Europe, individual nations have resisted the standardisation of the building permits process and this means that there is no substitution for expert local knowledge when considering a new data centre development. Hyphen has built a network of European offices to be able to provide just such advice and to guide our clients through the permitting path in the most timely and cost effective way possible.

Visit our interactive map for more tips and insights into local planning regulations, in over 20 countries across Europe.