Power to the People

In a quickly changing world, those that adapt survive. While this may mean life or death in the wild, a building that can reconfigure offices quickly, grow and shrink departments with ease and accommodate incoming technology effortlessly means fewer headaches for the facility manager (FM). If a structure can do all that, save money and be green too, then the FM looks like a hero. Want to look like a hero? Don’t get a cape; get an access or cellular floor system in your next building.

Corporations, call centers and casinos have been delivering services from the floor for years. Cellular systems, like HH Robertson Floor Systems, have been around since 1931.“Our system can deliver one preset outlet box every four square feet,” says John Michlovic, manager of Marketing and Technical Services for HH Robertson.“After reconfiguring a space, a box can be activated within an hour, without core drilling.”

While certainly easier to work with than pulling wires through the ceiling, cellular systems offer another bonus: safety. “Pound for pound, cables offer fires the same fuel as gasoline,” quotes Michlovic. “During a fire, cables generate toxic smoke.” A cellular floor system keeps the cables out of play during a fire, making it one of the safest choices for power delivery available. “It’s the only system that is fire-tested,” continues Michlovic. “For safety there is nothing like it.”

Raised Access Flooring

Access floors offer the same opportunity for change as a cellular system. They can also hold the building’s HVAC system. But does a college or university need that kind of flexibility? “Educators like to design a building that is going to last for years,” explains Bill Reynolds, marketing technical director for Tate Access Floors. “But when you don’t know what technology the future holds or how that building will even be used 50 years down the line, an access floor makes perfect sense.”

Administrators at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT, agree. Their Aloysius P. Kelly, S.J. Administrative Center, set to open this September, will work as a welcome center and student business office. The single-story building will contain a hospitality area, offices, conference rooms and a 100-seat presentation room. Most conveniently, student services — currently housed in five separate buildings scattered around the campus — will be consolidated into the space.

Administration chose to include an access floor by Workstage. “I was intrigued by the flexibility the product allows,” says Ric Taylor, vice president for Campus Planning and Operations, Fairfield University. “Departments could change rapidly in response to changes in academia.” This means that areas can shrink and grow effortlessly. “Because of the flooring and wall choices made in the Kelly Center, a block of offices could be converted into a conference room over the weekend,” says Donald Slaght, executive vice president, Workstage. “To further simplify things, the school’s maintenance staff can do the job alone, without calling in any trades.”

Access floors are not limited solely to new construction. When administrators for the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) wanted to convert warehouse space into administrative offices in downtown Boston’s historic Landmark Center, they chose to incorporate an access floor by Tate. “The floor was incorporated easily into the building,” reports Reynolds.

Along with flexibility, HSPH got “green” when they included access flooring in their remodel. Delivering HVAC through the floor turns out to be an environmentally friendly way keep occupants comfortable. “Air delivered at the floor and vented at the ceiling uses about 20 percent less energy than traditional HVAC,” says Reynolds.

“There is nothing new about delivering HVAC from the floor,” continues Slaught. “It’s been done in Europe for years.” Along with reduced energy costs, benefits include better air quality because the system doesn’t mix the entire volume of stale air, and personalized comfort. “The air diffusers can be placed wherever the occupant desires,” says Reynolds. “The individual can also adjust the direction and volume of air.”

Leading to LEED

Construction projects going for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification should consider floor-delivered HVAC to meet goals. Even if LEED certification isn’t a goal, as was the case in the Kelly center (“We’re primed for certification but just didn’t have time for the process,” explains Taylor), students and staff will appreciate the effort. “I know the students care about these green issues,” Taylor reports.

Aesthetics are not compromised with an access floor as they can be covered just like any other. Carpet tile, wood, concrete or tiles are all acceptable over the top, as long the maintenance staff can easily pop it off to get underneath. “A rolled good can even be used if you are not planning on reconfiguring much,” says Slaught.

While administrative buildings and libraries seem likely environments for access floors, other spaces may benefit from the flexibility. Classrooms that may one day be reconfigured into administrative space seem a natural. Even residence halls might be appropriate. “In the next 10 years, Arizona State will go from a 60,000-student school to a 100,000-student school,” Slaught reports. “Those dorms need to go up fast, and they need to be flexible. What will happen to them after that population bubble pushes through? Access floors offer more options.”

A Possible Drawback

If access floors offer so much flexibility, beauty and energy savings, why doesn’t all new construction use the process? The easy answer is upfront cost. While no one disagrees that the system will save money with each furniture reconfiguration and air churn, initial costs can be more. However, they can also be less.

“If we get involved the process early, the costs can be the same or even a savings over conventional overhead systems,” says Reynolds. In fact, that was the case with the HSPH project. Even though they anticipated higher initial costs, the total project cost came in under expectations.

The same is true at Fairfield University. “We just finished a traditionally constructed building, and the Kelly Center came in about 25 to 30 percent a square foot less,” reports Taylor. “And this building will cost less to operate.”