BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — SALEM — Winter Street Architects has proven that you don’t need a Boston address to compete in — and win — a nationwide design competition for a giant corporation.
The Salem firm has done just that, winning a competition to design a cutting-edge, highly efficient data center for online retailer eBay near Salt Lake City, Utah. And it’s done that from its headquarters on the top floor of a former department store building on Essex Street — a space that includes a rock climbing wall just behind the reception area.
The firm’s award-winning data center is nearing completion on a reclaimed copper mine in South Jordan, Utah. One of the building’s most interesting features is its use of solid oxide fuel cells that will allow the data center to generate its own “carbon neutral power.” It also utilizes free cooling, meaning there are no mechanical compressors or refrigerators to cool the building; instead, the data center is cooled by water and air and by leveraging the dry desert climate.
The local firm of 20 employees had to win a competition held by eBay to design the data center. In 2011, it beat out a list of large international design firms, said Mark Meche, a co-founder and senior principal of Winter Street Architects. The data center’s design was a team effort of the firm’s architects, as well as specialists including Lexington-based AHA Consulting Engineers.
The Uptime Institute recently recognized the project for Design Innovation in a Green Enterprise IT project, with Enterprise IT referring to the massive computer infrastructure needed to run huge high-tech businesses such as eBay.
The data center turned out to be the largest assignment to date in Winter Street’s portfolio, and also the second data center the firm has designed for eBay.
“A lot of what we are working on is super-efficient data centers,” said the firm’s other senior principal and co-founder, Paul Durand.
Founded in 1987, the firm started on Winter Street in Salem then moved to Washington Street.
In 2000, the firm moved to the former Newmark department store and office building at 209 Essex St., where it occupies a spacious, airy office on the third floor. The building is owned by Winter Street’s founders.
Working long hours as they built their firm, Meche and Durand found Salem to be a more efficient place to work than Boston.
“We almost signed a lease on Summer Street in Boston ...” Durand said. “But we thought about it and the quality of life, and being able to work here efficiently from (Salem) was a great thing.”
They could afford to buy a building in Salem, which is located on the pedestrian mall, something they would not have been able to do in downtown Boston. And they were able to tap top-notch designers and architects who live in the area.
“Coming to Salem and doing high-quality work is their choice,” Meche said, “and they stay here a long time.”
Winter Street’s portfolio includes libraries, commercial offices, firehouses, public safety buildings, residential condominiums, life science labs, resorts and data centers. It’s also designed the Depot Square condominiums in Beverly, among other local projects.
Locally, the firm has done its fair share of work in Salem.
Winter Street designed the Derby Lofts condominiums, the A&J King Artisan Bakery and the Olde Salem Greens golf course clubhouse with its soaring roof. At Salem State, the firm designed the public safety building and is designing a temporary modular dorm. It is designing a renovation of the Salem YMCA’s historic Ames Hall.
The founders have also given their time to the city. Durand is chairman of the Salem Redevelopment Authority’s Design Review Board, a former Chamber of Commerce president and a former Planning Board member before he moved to Wenham. Meche previously served on the executive board of the Salem Partnership and as president of Salem Main Streets. He was also one of the founders of the Salem Academy Charter School.
Durand said he and Meche love the city, and they have been able to establish a Boston architectural firm without a Boston address.
So how did a Salem firm wind up designing a data center for eBay in Utah? The principals say it’s because they are a nimble firm.
“We have always been good in getting into new avenues of work,” said Durand. They are always watching the economy to see where the trends in buildings are headed, he noted.
The firm has a done a range of work for Harvard Medical School, which Meche and Durand said dovetails with the firm’s latest push into life sciences and data centers. The firm’s core work has been in commercial office space and interior design in Boston.
The firm did not set out to be designers of data centers, Meche said. Years ago, they became frustrated when the requirements of engineering teams would interfere with architectural plans.
“We set out to understand their work better and integrate it better,” Meche said. They wound up being hired for increasingly technical projects, which are driven by engineers and their requirements. Meche said architects are important to give a planning perspective to a building project like a data center.
“Without an architect to do planning, it just doesn’t work as well if you make the architect the sort of the draftsman for the engineers,” Meche said.
Winter Street worked for the former Sun Microsystems, and built a data center in Burlington that caught the attention of the company and the industry. That eventually led to more data center work and to competing for the two eBay projects.
“I think we won on the process,” Meche said. He said Winter Street took a design-school approach to the competition: “We basically said, ‘What can we use here to make it better — no holds barred.’”
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.