While a new 28-megawatt electrical room for the system’s transformers was built around the perimeter of the E102 computer room—taking up what was once the office space of OLCF’s leadership group—planners still had to find a big enough area for Frontier’s cooling towers and all their associated infrastructure. They ended up going to the building next door, 5800, which could provide the needed space—but also required more moves and had some architectural hurdles to overcome.

“The building that we’re putting the mechanical plant into was originally designed as a lab space, with not a lot of structure to it—it was basically just holding up the roof,” said Bart Hammontree, technical project manager for ORNL’s Laboratory Modernization Division. “But we’re putting in the neighborhood of a million pounds’ worth of piping and cooling towers on the roof of this building. So we had to basically build a new structure inside of an existing building and we had to put new foundations in to support all that.”

In laymen’s terms, this makes for difficult, complicated work.

Crews had to saw-cut the entire slab underlying Building 5800, rip it out, and dig new foundations inside the building—while avoiding many electrical conduits passing through the construction area to supply power to other parts of the building. Building 5800 is still an operational space, with labs conducting scientific research even during construction.Although the team has diagrams showing where these power lines ought to be, they decided not to take any chances—and turned to technology for added safety.

“We brought in a specialty consultant that uses ground-penetrating radar and an electromagnetic wand to scan the area looking for signals from live conduits. It went really well once we took the time to do that investigative step,” Hammontree said.

Every large project at ORNL includes a risk management program that predicts potential issues that may slow the work, which helps each team preplan mitigation strategies to stay on schedule and within budget. However, there was one factor that the Frontier team did not anticipate when it was assembling its risk register in 2018: a global pandemic.

Taking all the precautions necessary to ensure the team remains healthy has presented challenges. In March, ORNL instituted stringent rules on who it would allow on its campus, requiring COVID screening for all contractors and visitors.

“Especially in the early days, it was very difficult to get contractors from out of state or from outside of East Tennessee in, so we had to do a lot of planning any time we needed to bring in a specialty contractor from out of the area,” Hammontree said. “That was very challenging. But the medical staff has been great—they worked with us any time we needed one of our contractors tested and we got the results back really quickly. That has allowed us to keep marching forward.”

A construction project of this scale normally takes about 2 years to complete, Whitt said—but to put Frontier into service as soon as possible, the team plans to complete the work in less than a year and a half.

“The biggest challenge that we face at this point is just the incredibly aggressive schedule that we set for the work,” Whitt said. “We’re responding to the science need for exascale computers so we had to accelerate the time frame for everything—for the technologies, for having the room ready. So we’re doing more work for the OLCF than we’ve ever done before and we’re doing it on a shorter time scale.”

Despite the effects of the pandemic, the team is on track to complete the data center in spring of 2021.

UT-Battelle LLC manages Oak Ridge National Laboratory for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://energy.gov/science.

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