Understanding Integrated Design by Trying Your Hand at Something Different

Before you get to far into this, I’ll warn you right off the bat
that it doesn’t have a lot to do with HVAC and commissioning, at
least not directly. Rather, it has to do with some broader
perspective, philosophical thoughts I had the other day regarding
how we go about preparing drawings, a fundamental means of
communicating ideas in our industry.  That led to some
thoughts on how we tend to think when we prepare drawings vs.
what actually happens when you try to build what the drawing
depicts. The connection to HVAC and commissioning is that both
topics speak to integration and as I am fond of saying,
commissioning and building operation is all about

First, some background. In my previous post, I mentioned
encountering an unexpected opportunity to visualize
while working on an office remodeling project. I’ve
been working out of my house for a while now, but have been using
an unfinished corner of our basement for a temporary office while I
figured out what to do for a permanent location. The process took a
while as Kathy (my bride) and I discussed and explored options that
ranged from something permanent in my temporary location to a
separate free standing structure to an addition to my shop. We
finally settled on this plan, which converts a spare bedroom I
built in our basement to an office, but also allows Kathy and I to
use it as a spare bedroom and give the master suite to our guests
when they visit.

I’m not sure I would have arrived at the solution depicted
above had I not spent some time trying to understand the
architectural principles behind designing a space, especially a
small space. In the past, I’ve laid out remodeling plans for houses
I have worked on and while they’ve been build-able and worked and
generally provided the intended function, many of them also just
didn’t seem quite right, like there was a disconnect between the
idea I had and what I created. That lead me to realize that there
really is more to this architectural design thing than simply
making sure door swings miss, that the roof doesn’t leak, and that
codes are complied with. So, I decided I would try to understand
that and make my office project my proving ground, sort of a test
of what I had (or had not) learned.

One of the tricks has been efficient use of space; our home is a
fairly small
shotgun bungalow
with three bedrooms and two baths. None of the
rooms are large and things tend to be narrow due to the shot gun
bungalow arrangement. A lot of our inspiration came from Sarah Susanka’s “not so big”
concepts that she has written about in books like The Not So
Big House
. For those of you not familiar with her books or
ideas, they have very strong sustainability connections that I
personally found to be both insightful, appealing, and applicable
in the broader perspective, including in both my personal and
professional life. So, if you are interested in sustainable design
and principles, you may want to check them out. 

What I learned from reading her books and others were some of
the fundamental principles that an architect applies to their
design process. In many ways, it’s just like engineering a good
duct or piping system. If I obtain a bunch of duct and fittings and
simply put them together in a manner that connects the air handling
unit with the load it serves, I get what looks like and even acts
like and air handling system. But, it may not actually be a
working air handling system in that it may not
deliver adequate capacity or it may be noisy or it may be

To get a working air handling system, I need to
put the duct and fittings together in a way that is founded on the
proper application of physical principles. Similarly, one can
obtain a bunch of lumber, drywall and other building materials and
put them together and get something that looks like a house and
maybe even acts like a house. But to get a house that feels right
and meets the needs of its occupants, architects apply fundamental
principles like proportion and views and varying ceiling heights to
create a sense of space or purpose, guide movement, or focus

In many ways, these principles are much more esoteric than
the hard physics based principles engineers apply to their systems.
None-the-less they are fundamental principles that are the
foundation between a building that is simply an assembly of
building materials and a building that works.

This brings me to my point. In my experience, as professionals
in the building industry focused on a particular discipline, I
believe we can learn a lot, become much better at what we do, and
deliver better buildings by taking the time to explore and
understand the challenges, solutions, and techniques that the
professionals working in other disciplines deal with in their day
to day life. My approach to this has been to read a lot and to
actually try things. For instance:

I’m a far cry from an architect, but I
feel pretty good about my little office design and certainly
learned a lot about why there is a difference between a house or
space that is just a house or space and one that feels good and
right the moment you walk into it. And while I’m sure someone who
really knew what they were doing could review my design and find
room for improvement in what I did, I have been excited to discover
that my space feels right and works as it evolves from concept to
reality. I know from past experience that this would not
necessarily be the case had I not learned and tried to apply
architectural principles as I developed the design.

I’m a far cry from an electrician, but
I have learned a lot by trying my hand at running conduit, pulling
wire, terminating phone and CAT 5 cables in the little structured
wiring system I have in my house, and other electrical tasks
encountered in the course of my remodeling efforts in the different
homes I have lived in. The same can be said for my little forays
into carpentry, piping fitting, drywalling, and masonry.

My point is that while my hands-on adventures
occasionally met with limited success in terms of turning me
into an architect or an electrician or a fitter or a carpenter
(very limited in some cases) , they
all have made me a better mechanical engineer and
commissioning provider. From them, I not only learned a few new
skills, I also learned more about the buildings I spend a good
portion of my day working on and in.  And most important,
I learned something about the people I work with every day.

I can’t help but believe the people connection is a
good thing for all of us. After all a working building is an
integrated assembly of all of its elements. Delivering a working
building involves an integrated approach to design and most of the
challenges we face in the day to day operating environment for most
buildings come back to a lack of integration somewhere along the

So my bottom line at this point is to suggest you take
some time to understand a different angle on the stuff you deal
with every day, be it by reading or trying something yourself or
simply having lunch with a friend from a different discipline and
talking to them about what they do. You’ll probably learn something
and gain a broader, more integrated perspective.  And I’m
betting that will make you better at what you do as a result.

Senior Engineer – Facility Dynamics

Click here for an index to previous posts <www.csemag.com/blog/1250000325/post/1270037927.html>

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