Ductwork design draws scrutiny in Shaler Area collapse

| Monday, April 16, 2012

It's not unusual to find exposed ductwork in schools, like the section that recently fell in a Shaler school cafeteria, design professionals say.

Exposed ductwork is an architectural design element that makes rooms look bigger, gives a space an industrial feel and can be cheaper than installing a hard or drop ceiling, architects and engineers said.

"If you're in a classroom, a higher ceiling height gives a sense of openness," said Alan Metcalfe, owner of Metcalfe Architecture & Design in Philadelphia. "It's that industrial chic or elegant look. ... A lower, flat ceiling is a lot more oppressive feeling, visually."

The 6-foot-long piece of suspended metal ductwork that fell in Shaler Area Elementary School's cafeteria on April 3 was exposed, meaning nothing was between the 3-foot-diameter pipe and 250 fourth-graders seated below. Officials are investigating the incident, which injured eight students and four teachers.

It's not clear why architects included exposed ductwork when designing the school's extensive renovation in 2007 and 2008. The companies involved, Valentour English Bodnar & Howell architects of Mt. Lebanon and Downtown-based Dodson Engineering, did not return calls.

"Exposed ductwork is very, very common," said Joel Sims, president of schooldesigner.com, a Lancaster-based online clearinghouse of educational designs. "Most anybody can go to a restaurant or a church and find it."

Sims compared a duct falling with a roof caving in — it falls for a reason, not just because it's overhead.

Exposed ducts can heat and cool a building more efficiently because excess warm or cool air is not trapped around them in tight crawl spaces. Exposed ducts also are easier to reach for maintenance.

"It is a cost-effective manner in which to construct large open areas. Acoustically it works as well, and aesthetically it gives an open-air feel to it," said Daniel Matsook, superintendent at Central Valley School District in Monaca.

The district's Center Grange Primary School, a one-floor school built in 2007, and Central Valley High School, partially renovated that year, have exposed ductwork.

"When you go into either one of those buildings, both are pleasing to the eye, they're safe and they're secure," Matsook said.

Using exposed ductwork might not save money, though. It's often "an aesthetic decision," said John Barbera, a project manager and designer at Penner & Associates Architects in Point Breeze.

"If you don't have a ceiling, everything else that would run through the ceiling is going to be exposed as well," Barbera said. "You may have to go to greater lengths to make it look reasonable."

Matt Harding, director of support services for Canon-McMillan School District in Canonsburg, said maintenance crews report no problems with exposed ductwork throughout Canon-McMillan High School. The ductwork is inspected regularly.

"It's a common architectural aesthetic to leave them exposed," Harding said. "You see it everywhere."

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