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One vision: integrating M&E

The location of a building's services must be considered as part of the overall design process for a visually satisfying result

From its inception, the design concept for a building will usually include an idea of the role of structure.The same is not often true of the mechanical and electrical engineering systems, but perhaps it should be.

The increasing role of IT and awareness of the issues surrounding climate change are pushing mechnical and electrical M&E concerns to the forefront of the client's brief, shifting the balance of emphasis on many projects. M&E is increasingly a primary consideration of projects and so the visual characteristics of M&E systems should be considered at an early stage in the design process.

There are essential similarities between the design of M&E systems and the design of a structure. Both have a fundamental functionality that cannot be compromised. Either can be visually expressed, concealed or integrated into the architecture.Best results have generally been achieved in projects where the visual approach to all of the engineering was a positive decision taken as part of the concept design.

The 'industrial look' of completely exposed services is commonly adopted in low-cost retail units and industrial buildings but is seldom attempted in commercial buildings.The greatest obstacle to this approach is that every component of each system must be considered if it is to fully succeed; from the largest ducts to the washers on the fixing bolts. When the whole design team involve themselves in the system design sufficiently to understand the functional issues, the results can be extremely effective but in general this approach is visually unacceptable to most clients in the UK.All of the design issues of exposed services apply equally to the concept of exposed internal structure.

Concealed M&E is a theoretical ideal for many architects, as is invisible structure. In reality, neither is truly possible.Glass without glazing bars and bridges without supports are as unattainable as mechanical ventilation without diffusers and power without cables. It is sometimes possible to achieve a solution that may fool the eye into believing such magic has been worked.But the greatest obstacle to concealment is the absolute necessity for predictable function and performance of M&E equipment to avoid the need to open up for maintenance. Most commercial or commercially-funded projects in the UK have neither the timescale nor the budget to incorporate specially manufactured equipment in more than isolated areas of a building.

Integration of M&E in the early design is difficult to achieve. To accept the appearance and functional constraints of standard equipment and to work them into the building requires a great deal of design time and focus from the team. The success of this approach rests on detailing.

Industry custom and practice is for the setting out of M&E equipment to be the responsibility of the contractor, not always with universally acceptable results.

In complex buildings, the architect will often produce internal elevations, but such an extensive exercise is outside the scope of the architect's appointment for most projects. As a compromise, the diagrammatic system arrangements on the M&E engineer's drawings can be shown to be dimensionally correct if the architect and engineer together undertake a detailed review of the position of every visible element.

Most aspects of M&E are a part of the building infrastructure; but the lighting, or at least the lighting effect, is really part of the interior design finishes. It is more visible but also less permanent, meaning that there are visual considerations for the light fittings themselves, which do not apply to other systems. The shelf life of a light fitting is very short, as the technology is advancing rapidly. Consequently, the light fittings can fix the building's construction date as reliably as an engraved foundation stone. For the ambitious, the lighting can be used as a reference to anchor the building's contemporary context. Usually, though, the objective is to produce a building that never dates.

One possible approach that facilitates rapid updates of the light fittings is the use of low-key background lighting with task lighting, which has the benefit of changing with the furniture. They can also add visual interest to the unremittingly flat lighting effects created by lighting designed to give low glare for VDU users.

Whichever approach to the visual treatment of the M&E systems is chosen, it is most important that some choice is made. The concept and detailing of the M&E systems should be considered by the whole team as carefully as the building structure will be, because in many projects they are as much a part of the building and as critical to its success.

Kate Millen is an associate at Hoare Lea.

Contact 020 7890 2500

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