Selfless Design: Architects Planning with MEP in Mind

“Design has to work, art does not.”

Donald Judd

For every time an architect has found themselves redesigning something based on limitations brought forth by an engineer or feeling frustrated about what they got back from an engineer after a conversation that the architect thought went well, I can all but guarantee that the engineer is even more irritated with the situation than the architect. The engineers, just want clear guidance and boundaries so they can do their design work and be done; and the smaller the budget or the tighter the schedule, the more all of this rings true.

We architects can do better if we know what to be thinking about as we develop that initial schematic design. We can do better if we know what to ask as we design, or if we know how to explain our design intent in the language of mechanical and electrical engineering. Here’s some ideas…

Think Ahead, and Know the Systems Involved

Think about MEP systems continuously as you develop a schematic design, and the lower the project budget, the more things like ducts, conduits and plumbing should be occupying your early design thoughts. Use this boring stuff that architects don’t like to think about to your advantage and make it live harmoniously with your design.

Of course, all this requires you to know something about how MEP systems work, and if you don’t know, you’ll need to educate yourself. One thing a wise and talented engineer who runs a firm where all of the staff handle both mechanical and electrical engineering work told me was that he sought out great mechanical engineering professionals and then taught them electrical engineering. He explained that this was because mechanical engineering was much more complicated compared to electrical engineering, so adding electrical to the repertoire of mechanical engineers was the easier way to go. This is an important consideration for architects looking to learn enough about MEP systems to be able to guide their schematic design — you’ll pick up what you need to know about electrical quickly, so the focus for your learning needs to be on mechanical.

How does one learn? That depends a lot on how you like to learn (self-guided versus being taught by someone). I like to figure out as much as I can myself and then talk about what I learned with an engineer to refine my knowledge. Like so many things, the engineered systems that serve buildings are always evolving, but the basics haven’t changed much since Willis Carrier invented air conditioning and Thomas Crapper made the modern…well, uh crapper possible and Thomas Edison was fiddling with light bulbs. This is good because the basic knowledge will serve you well and doesn’t change over time. I think internet-based research is great for learning about MEP systems, and back when I didn’t know anything, I learned from the Architectural Graphic Standards, which are still a great resource — especially if you can get access to several different editions as content changed over the years and some go into more detail than others. You need to know this shit to pass the ARE anyway, so dive into it and enrich yourself!

Here’s a quick overview of what kind of MEP knowledge an architect needs to have in order to integrate MEP systems from the start of schematic design:

🌬 Mechanical Knowledge

  • Understand HVAC systems relevant to your particular line of work:
    • Know the components of each system and what kind of design scenario each system is appropriate for
    • Understand how the system gets attached to the building/site
    • Have awareness of any plumbing or electrical utilities that must connect to these systems
    • Know how the system gets fresh air and exhausts stale air
    • Understand what in the system needs service access and how to get to the system for access
  • Think about supply and return duct paths/distribution and understand rough duct sizing
  • Be aware of supplemental HVAC systems like exhaust fans/hoods, air doors, perimeter heating systems, etc. and know when you need to plan for them
  • Have a general understanding of what’s expensive when it comes to HVAC and what about that stuff makes it expensive — know what people do to save money too

🔌 Electrical Knowledge

  • Understand the basics of how electricity flows safely, as this is the main way to understand everything else about electrical infrastructure
  • Know the general dimensional requirements of switch gear and all of the related distribution equipment for your particular line of work, also know the code requirements around placement/spacing of this gear
  • Think about conduit paths to unusual parts of your design that need electricity for things like lights, such as canopies and interstitial spaces
  • Know what kind of gear is the most expensive and what makes it that way, also know how to be economical when placing primary and secondary conductor runs as these can get expensive too

🚽 Plumbing Knowledge

  • Understand slope requirements for the various types of sewer lines and be aware of how much height this sloping will require in your design
  • Think about where pipes will stack as they travel vertically through your design and have general knowledge about the size of those pipes relative to the purpose they serve
  • Know the plumbing infrastructure that accompanies automatic fire sprinkler systems and the code and local ordinance requirements around its placement in the building
  • Understand the basics of how hydronic plumbing serves certain HVAC systems and how that impacts HVAC system selection and infrastructure needs
  • Know how to estimate drainage needs for the kinds of roofs you use in your work
  • Know how to make plumbing expensive — and don’t do that stuff

It’s important to gain an understating of the different types of HVAC systems, or more specifically what makes them different from one another. When you have an understanding of the different HVAC systems you can make design suggestions for your engineers up front based on the program and your desired design objectives. After some conversation with the engineer, your selection may not be right for the project, but it goes a very long way to getting your engineer on the same page as you relative to what’s important to respect about your design and what needs to be accomplished to satisfy the program.

As an example, if your project is a build-out of the ground level shell of a multistory building, what did they leave you to start with for HVAC systems? Because you’re going to need to work with and around that equipment. Understanding the basics what that system is and how it works will help you deal with an existing condition that will impact the aesthetics of whatever you come up with in your schematic design. What if there is no existing HVAC structure? What if you know that there’s nowhere to place HVAC equipment except inside this ground level space? What if you understood that any HVAC getting used in this space needs both fresh air intake and return air exhaust? These are all things that aren’t a big deal to integrate from the start if you understand the basics. Integration of engineering elements into your design from the start can definitely help keep a handle on construction costs too. This is just one tiny example of why it’s important to design with MEP in mind.

Your Design Actions Have Consequences

As alluded to above, your earliest design decisions have (financial) consequences. Forcing an MEP engineer to work around your design because you didn’t consider the needs of other building systems can be directly attributed to increased construction costs. Tightly integrating MEP systems with the architecture is not only a beautiful thing from a purely aesthetic point of view, but it usually means you’re helping save money on the project too by being efficient with these expensive and laborious systems. The first people on the project team to thank you for all of this will be your engineers and the most grateful will be the client.

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