Why Don't Architects and Interior Designers Care About HVAC Systems?

GUILTY! Once upon a time, I would have scoffed at mechanical engineers and contractors if they'd ask me, as the design architect, for a bigger room to put the HVAC (heating and air conditioning) equipment in.

"Are you crazy? And give up valuable storage space???"

They might have also ask me for dropped soffits and vertical chases to run the ductwork through. To which I would reply:

"What?!?! That's not consistent with my innovative and beautiful design! The audacity!!!" 

OK, so maybe I wasn't quite THAT oblivious and arrogant, but I was definitely not as aware of the importance of the HVAC systems and integrating them in to the design of a home as I am today.

My, how the tables have turned.

I'm still an architect and I'm still designing homes, but I'm also designing, specifying and integrating the HVAC Systems for those homes. I also design them for homes that other architects or designers have done. Sometimes it's the architect that hires me, and other times it's the HVAC contractor or the home's builder.

No matter who it is, most of the time it's too late to influence the architecture and interior design to smoothly integrate the equipment and ductwork because the house is already framed up. The HVAC system is typically one of the last thing to be installed in a home, just before insulation, drywall and finishes. Oddly, it's also one of the last things to be designed, and it's done on the fly. Too often the architecture and interior design did NOT account for the integration of a mechanical system and its ductwork, so installation becomes a challenge.

You know that expression, "trying to fit ten pounds in to a five pound sack"? It can be like that in most situations where I'm asked to design the HVAC System as an afterthought. Thankfully, I enjoy the challenge of it and I make it work! Of, course, it would definitely make everyone's job go smoother and faster if I had been asked earlier, but that's the point.

Case in point

Here's a recent project that illustrates what happens when HVAC Design is an afterthought. See all the red lines in the image below? Those are beams. Beams that can NOT be penetrated or moved because the house is nearly finished. Cutting a whole would likely cause the house to fall down (not good!), and moving an already installed beam is, to put it nicely, impractical. Dropped ceilings and soffits were out of the question, and the only space available for equipment was in the encapsulated attic areas adjacent to the second floor rooms. No HVAC closet.

Duct Layout, Why Don't Architects and Designers Care?

So, how about ductless mini-split heat pump system? That would certainly save the day, but not all homeowners are ready to see them mounted on their walls. Why? For one, none of them are seen as all that attractive. Even the LG Art Cool Mirror from LG (no, LG and LG Squared, Inc. are not related, but we wouldn't mind our royalty check...) is still seen as an "ugly box that hangs on the wall"! Second, multiple wall-mounted fan coil units are necessary to serve the multiple rooms or zones in a typical home. That can add up!

LG Art Cool Mirror Mini-Split

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big supporter of mini-split heat pump systems. I design and specify them as often as any other type of system, if not more. But, 9.5 out of 10 of the mini-splits systems I design are the ducted version. Why? Because the ductless are "ugly".

But, I digress...

Back to the example above. After we decided on the only practical places for the ducted (mini-split) fan coils (see blue zone and green zone), we had three major challenges:

  1. Find a route for the ductwork to serve the Great Room in the Blue Zone
  2. Do the same for the Master Bedroom in the Green Zone
  3. Keep the distances of the ductwork as short as possible to maintain good performance with these low-static units.

Both of these rooms on the other side of impenetrable and immovable beams. So, after verifying it on site, we determined the best way to get the air to those rooms was to go through the attic space above the porch, which wasn't originally going to be encapsulated. It required a change order to install foam insulation so we could keep all the ductwork within a building enclosure.

Though we were pushing the limits of the system's performance (available static pressure (0.2), friction rates, etc.), the duct design showed that it was possible. We worked with the contractor to install fittings that made air flow as smooth as possible. It took several different scenarios and revisions to get it there, but we did, and the system performs well. Phew! Another successful save!

It's an opportunity, not a problem

Until homes are designed and built to only need a tea pot to heat them and a couple of ice cubes to cool them, we NEED mechanical heating and cooling systems. The equipment and the ductwork need to be thought about and understood, so they can be integrated in to the architecture and interior design of homes. They are the primary building component that will keep their homeowners comfortable during the summer and winter months. There are no two ways about it.

Just think of it this way. It's another design opportunity! As architects and interior designers, we love to design, right? Aren't we always looking for ways to be innovative. Who better to come up with the big ideas for a building design than the architect or designer? Who knows, we could come up with the next big thing in heating and cooling a home, and the industry would love us for it!

Oh, wait, that would mean we'd get recognition for a unique and inventive idea. Never mind! Architects and Interior Designers aren't interested in that kind of thing. We're a modest group...

Here's an idea developed by Rob deKeiffer, of Boulder Design Alliance, for a way to "conceal" a return air pathway (and relieve room pressure) from one room to the next through a door frame. Couldn't we run with something like this and do something similar with crown molding? Wouldn't you rather come up with a detail like this instead of "accepting" the "hideous" metal grill? Architects and Designers don't "accept" anything, do we. Well, there is one thing. We'll accept challenge? So bring it on! Consider it a challenge!

More of these kind of opportunities await us. Let's not just focus on "juxtaposing" something ambiguous or "blurring the lines between inside and out".

How about we blur the lines between design and building science. Now that's a juxtaposition I'd like to see more of!

-written by Chris Laumer-Giddens

Views: 1991

Tags: architecture, design, duct, hvac, integrated

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Comment by George Whiting on December 18, 2012 at 7:12am

Another group that should be a lot better with HVAC is that trademarked group of professionals, the REALTORS.  They are often sloppy in their listings, and many seem to not know the difference between steam and hot water systems, natural gas and propane fuels, and so on.  As professionals, they should be held to a high standard on this point, as HVAC fuels and system types are important. 

Comment by Kevin Wood on December 17, 2012 at 3:56pm

Very well done Chris and oh so true! How many times am I as an Inspector going to see notched out beams and modifications to fit in a heating system. Most of the time the return grills are covered with the furniture in the bedroom and they still expect to keep warm. When you tell them they need to move the bed or dresser ect they just give you the look and as you pointed out the worst of all is telling them they need a return in the room or the door cut back, Why? Because you will never be warm with the door shut.

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