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

9 Responses so far.

  1. martin kerstens says:

    If I were home owner I would be filing claim under errors and ommissions. Architect would be paying out of his pocket the increased expenses incurred to install HVAC systems. This is clearly why you hire an architect, this is negligence…

  2. Thanks for your comment, Martin.

    There are a lot of components being considered (# of bedrooms, appliances, cladding, landscaping, lighting, etc) in the design of a home or any building, and we have a responsibility to make accommodations for each one, regardless of our knowledge, interest or understanding of any one component. This is also a privilege of an architect and/or interior designer.

    Often, the economics of a project gave the architect less motivation to be thorough, and it can lead to these situations. There is still a responsibility, however, to not under deliver even if under paid. Maybe turning down the work is the better decision for the benefit of all parties, or maybe explaining (again and again, if necessary) what all goes in to designing a home. It’s very much a “get-what-you-pay-for” investment, and since we know this better than anyone, we should explain it and help everyone else involved understand it.

    Don’t hesitate to comment further. I think this is an important topic!

    Thanks, again.

  3. My view is that they do care but in a different way.

    Life doesnt need to be confrontational and yet for all my Career i have seen regular and sometimes bitter confrontation between Architect and Engineer. Space issues are at the fore front.

    Its perhaps worth considering why others are not so passionate about the issues of Architecture or HVAC.

    In my view it is that we simply dont have enough time to make integrated and successful design.

    Try to involve the whole design team in the issues. Education. Discussion.No one likes to be criticised. Try to gather the team around you and bring them into your problem.

    I say that for engineers to be successful they must understand their ustomers business. Few do. Most dont care.

    question for an Architect. How much does an AC system cost per sq m.

    question for an HVAC engineer. How much does Curtain walling cost per sq m.

    Happy Christmas everyone.

  4. Thanks, Glan. Good comments and questions.

    It seems like designers and architects should want the privilege of taking ownership of the entire building and its design process. A failure in any one designed component, is a failure in the overall design. It’s this lack of ownership and integration that leads to a segregation of disciplines and practice that leads to failed buildings. If the engineers, architects, builders and designers don’t communicate, neither will the designs and buildings they create. We can’t afford to not make the time for this.

    We have too great a number and too great a trend of failed and/or failing buildings not to change the way things have been done. Is it through better collaboration? Is it through integrated design. Is it both? What else can we do. I think knowledge, understanding, diligence and care are good places to start.

    Happy Holidays, to you, too.

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  8. […] that made this house particularly challenging. It was the fact that the design of the home was not designed to fully accommodate any type of air conditioning systems, other than, perhaps, a system without duct work. In the […]

  9. Phil Allsopp says:

    I’m an architect and I spend a great deal of time getting the building envelope to do as much “heavy lifting” as possible as far as energy gains and losses from occupants, their activities and th external climatic conditions. But I also spend a lot of time on electrical, plumbing, power and HVAC systems layouts and design. Not doing so would be the same as someone touting themselves as a car designer when all they actually do is build clay models of the car’s exterior. Architecture requires knowledge and ability that cuts across many different engineering and product design fields. Its why the process of becoming an architect takes such a long time – just as becoming a physician takes more than a few evening classes and watching a couple of videos on knee surgery.