In the Wake of the Quake


For over 60 years, Iron Mountain has stored and protected archives and records for businesses around the globe. Some of the company’s largest racking projects are being developed throughout the Americas, including Chile, where it has secured a tight clamp on the commercial market. First setting up stakes in a six-building plot of land in Lampa, Santiago, in 1996, the company acquired storage rival Storbox seven years later. Today, the dual campuses separated by almost two miles (3 km) assist over 1,200 customers with the storage of their records and archives.

Both campuses as they are constructed today are high-height record management facilities with large selective rack systems used to store massive quantities of paper documents. The structures that are not records management buildings are used as either vaults for multi-media storage or as large scanning facilities known as document management system (DMS) buildings. In these smaller structures, over 70 personnel members scan paper documents committing them to digital files for safe backup and quick retrieval access.


When an Iron Mountain client transfers archive or storage files to the facility, they are cataloged into the system through an online protection program called Safekeeper PLUS. Through the program, the goods are not only inventoried, but also assigned a storage location based on security variables and how often the product will be accessed.

The scanned goods are manually moved to their location by warehouse personnel. Space assignments are managed logistically throughout the warehouse, meaning that each level has varying degrees of turnaround and access depending upon the assigned location. Essentially, the farther back from the aisle entrances, the less frequently the archive is accessed. The walkways on each level of the warehouse signify a logistical break in the turnover of the stored items. If a client’s goods are on the opposite end of the walkway, it means they don’t visit often.

Once the items have been taken to their proper location, logistical errors are almost completely avoided by a barcode scan match. First the goods are placed in the assigned location on the rack and both the storage tote and rack location are scanned and matched accordingly – the same general method used in libraries, only with the added assistance of multi-point scans recording the item’s location. When a client accesses their items, the process resets and the goods are sent to another location. For security purposes, the box never returns to the exact same location.

Iron Mountain’s successful Chilean operation nearly came – quite literally - crumbling to the ground in 2010 when the sixth largest earthquake in recorded history erupted on February 27 between the Maule and Biobio regions. The tremors rattled the racks throughout many of the larger buildings while decimating most of the smaller office spaces. Ultimately, much of Iron Mountain’s rack was rendered unsafe and warranted demolition. Between the two campuses, Iron Mountain took down half of its facilities (seven in total) and the racking systems inside each. It was only in the wake of the eruption that it became clear how to recover the capacity with new racks: call Mecalux. Doug Berry, Iron Mountain’s director of construction and facilities, remarked that none of the seven destroyed buildings were Mecalux systems. “At the time of the earthquake,” Berry said, “there was only one Mecalux facility and it stood the test of time. It stood the test of an earthquake.”

Five months before the ‘quake, Iron Mountain contracted Mecalux to build the 1.4 million box capacity-loaded Warehouse 11. The multi-leveled, high-density rack installation was scheduled to begin in December 2009 and complete its first phase in May – and it did, despite an earthquake serrating the campus two months into the project. Nelson Campos, Mecalux’s GM in Chile, credited the extensive pre-processing work designed by both sides with the ability to stay on deadline. In this case, the pre-processing started a long-trend of strong communication between both Iron Mountain and Mecalux.

One Size Fits All

Before assembly could begin on Warehouse 11, the racks first went through a preliminary layout. The shelving units inside the Iron Mountain facilities are all the same size, unlike storage options in multi-purpose warehouses, which usually carry a number of varied systems to match the variety of goods being stored. Because of this, the entirety of Warehouse 11, and eventually Warehouses 12 and 77, were designed for 100 percent capacity, meaning that the installed selective pallet racking was designed from the inside out – first with the rack and then with the skin of the building.

Once Mecalux was awarded the bid for Warehouse 11, the layout went through a structural review which took in multiple considerations such as fire protection, electrical, security and the local seismic regulations - a harbinger for what would later prove to be the most important detail of the installation. The conventional pallet rack, which would be accessed on multiple floors by stairs, elevators and catwalks, were each engineered with more focused attention to the seismic construction of the shelves.

Seismic construction

Iron Mountain utilizes three types of engineer corps in countries requiring seismic engineering. The first group, made up of civil engineers, develop the structural design of the building. The second group of consulting engineers from the country manufacturing the rack (in this instance, Mexico) develops the structural design of the storage systems. The final group is the reviewing engineers who determine the strength and reliability of both the facility and the structures inside it in the event of seismic activity. Structural engineer Rodrigo Concha, who owns RCP Engineering Company Ltd., a company dedicated to the development and regulation of civil engineering projects, served as the reviewing engineer on this installation.

Concha unsurprisingly classified the land upon which Warehouse 11 was built as being Type 3 – the highest risk for earthquake damage. He also classified the Central Valley zone, inside which both campuses were built, as being intermediate Type 2. In both cases, reinforcing each structure was going to be important. At the time, Concha and the rest of the engineering teams involved in the project had no idea just how important such reinforcement would be.

Iron Mountain’s products, unlike many manufacturing warehouses, have thousands of identical boxes stacked neatly from row to row and aisle to aisle. In the event of an earthquake, the seismic waves likely to be created would move longitudinally through the rack system like waves against a rock. And like a rock not secured into the sediment, such force would either uproot the structure or cause it to fracture. The goal of seismically engineered rack is not just to make it thicker or heavier (the density of the product sitting on the shelves already ensured that they would be weighted down in this case), the goal is to make the rigid rack more absorbent of the traumatic shock a seismic event would cause.

Normally longitudinal bracing would be installed across the back of the rack system, but because Iron Mountain’s densely stored goods rarely move, implementing continuous rear bracing systems in addition to bracing trays would have been impossible without diminishing the storage and interfering with the sprinklers installed inside the rack. Instead, the longitudinal rigid frames were installed with connections between beams and reinforced columns. Campos described the 13-foot (4 meter) central walkways on each of the four floors that served not only as convenient ergonomic logistical pathways but also load-bearers for the seismically reinforced central points. “The connection resistance should be strong enough to ensure there won’t be local failures or instability in case of seismic occurrences,” Concha explained, “so the connections have to be designed within a range of elasticity and sufficient over resistance.” Adding universal weight to a steel product without mobility would have the same effect as someone tightening their muscles and bracing for impact moments before a car crash. The strength of the bones actually works against the person if met with a significantly more powerful force. Rigidity, in both cases causes the weaker structure to crumple.

Any seismic waves traveling longitudinally through the central frame would of course pull on the foundation slabs to which the frame is anchored. Therefore, the derivative forces created from the extra weight of the seismically enhanced anchors and base plates had to be calculated in order to create thicker, more shock absorbent floor slabs.

After the earthquake, and halfway through the Mecalux Group’s completion of Warehouse 11, Concha was brought in again to investigate the buckled rack. That the Mecalux rack was only halfway through its installation when the earthquake struck didn’t phase Concha’s assessment that it still would have remained undamaged had it been completed and loaded during the ‘quake.

That the half-finished Warehouse 11 rack withstood the pounding of a magnitude 8.8 earthquake was what compelled some at Iron Mountain to recommend Mecalux for the suddenly necessary rebuilding of the multiple destroyed campus buildings. “The shelving collapsed taking with it part of the building structure,” Carlos Parada, the project manager with Iron Mountain Chile, said. "We had had to put the 1 million boxes we had lying around on the ground in a new warehouse. We decided to move fast into Phase 2 to be able to put our boxes in a warehouse space.” Iron Mountain awarded the Mecalux Group with contracts for two additional maximum-capacity warehouses on the dual campuses. Iron Mountain said it was impressed with the communication and teamwork shown by the Mecalux Group and was satisfied that the company’s seismic design could be easily reproduced in the design of the new facilities, “If I’ve heard it once,” Berry says today, “I’ve heard it 10 times from [the management team in Chile] that they say ‘thank you for pushing the issue because Mecalux has performed very well.’”

Rebuild or Regress

Mecalux wasn’t the only company earning business because of its advanced capabilities. In the earthquake’s aftermath, the already successful Iron Mountain found itself to be one of the few businesses remaining productive amidst the devastation. It served as a port in the storm for many new clients looking to relocate their documents to more secure facilities. “Our competition didn’t have the robust racking or sprinkler systems that helped us survive the earthquake,” Berry said. As a result, the company garnered nearly 100 new clients after the disaster including one of the country’s largest banks, which had previously done its own records storage. Such growth borne from such regional turmoil put Iron Mountain in the tricky position of having to rebuild and progress at the same time. Some of the personnel offices on both campuses had been destroyed, relegating a large percentage of the staff to bunker themselves in 25-person capacity trailers while new offices were built for them. With anywhere between 10-14 trailers on each campus, personnel from the DMS, data entry and order entry divisions were divided into specific trailers and forced to work there while the reconstruction of the destroyed buildings was underway. Iron Mountain upgraded the multiple damaged smaller buildings with two new large structures better suited to survive earthquakes; higher ceiling, more efficient use of energy, with more cubic feet to maintain a higher storage capacity. After removing the rubble from the necessary land plots and developing the rack structure layout alongside Mecalux – using similar designs as were used on Warehouse 11 – construction on Warehouse 12 and 77 began at a breakneck pace.

Not only was it imperative to get the displaced employees back into more permanent office spaces, but meeting the final deadline was equally important in order for Iron Mountain to avoid paying $500,000 in lease renewals for another year on the temporary trailers. “It was critical,” Berry said. “It was worth a half-million dollars to us to make sure that every milestone through the process was met. Mecalux partnered with us bringing in the right resources and committing to travel schedules for project managers in the United States and Mexico. That really drove the project.”

After fully optimizing the method of communication between the Mecalux project managers and those with Iron Mountain in Phase 1 of the Warehouse 11 installation, there were five more deadlines to meet. First, the completion of Phase 1 in Warehouse 11, daisy chained immediately by the start of Warehouse 11’s Phase 2, then the simultaneous construction of the nearby Warehouse 12 and the Warehouse 77 construction completed on the Storbox campus.

At each turn, the quintet of installations, first with the design and logistical planning that provided the bulk of the work in Warehouse 11 and then the copy and paste construction of Warehouses 12 and 77, proved to be an intricate undertaking. Not only were both companies able to communicate their needs through the turmoil of a cataclysmic natural disaster, but they were able to recover immediately and manage the fallout. With the dedication of the Chilean management team, in addition to the Mecalux project managers, the four-part construction of racking systems with over 3 million box capacity proved to be an installation that occasionally bent, but never broke.