In theory, it is entirely possible to design and construct a building made of totally independent components. The separate pieces of such a building could be designed in isolation, each part having an autonomous role to play.

Someone who proposes this idea may note that a beam is a beam and a duct is a duct, after all, and there is no need to confuse one for the other. For every function or role to be performed in a building, there are a host of competing and individualized products to choose from. As long as the final assembly has already been worked out, the independent pieces can fulfill their single-purpose roles simply by fitting in place and not interfering with other pieces.

Most architects would quickly denounce this isolationist approach to design. Where, they would ask, is the harmony, the beauty, or even the practicality in such an absurdly fragmented method? Surely there is some sympathy and order among the parts that lead to a comprehensive whole?

Architects are, in fact, inherently prone to take exactly the opposite approach: Starting with carefully considered ideas about the complete and constructed building, they would then explore inward, working through intricate relationships between all the parts and functions. But how far does this concern for relationships go, and how inclusive is the complete idea?

Equally important, what sort of thinking is required to comprehend and resolve all the issues that arise in the process? This is where the topic and discipline of integration fits in—providing an explicit framework for selecting and combining building components in purposeful and intentional ways.

Integration among the hardware components of building systems is approached with three distinct goals: Components have to share space, their arrangement has to be aesthetically resolved, and at some level, they have to work together or at least not defeat each other. These three goals are physical, visual, and performance integration The following sections serve as a brief overview of how these goals are attained.

Building components have to fit. They share space and volume in a building, and they connect in specific ways. CAD drawing layers offer a useful way to think about how complicated these networks of shared space and connected pieces can become. Superimposing structure and HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning) layers provides an example: Are there problems where large ducts pass under beams? Do the reflected ceiling plan and furniture layouts put light fixtures where they belong?

Physical integration is fundamentally about how components and systems share space, how they fit together. In standard practice, for example, the floor-ceiling section of many buildings is often subdivided into separate zones: recessed lighting in the lowest zone, space for ducts next, and then a zone for the depth of structure to support the floor above.

These segregated volumes prevent “interference” between systems by providing adequate space for each individually remote system. Meshing the systems together, say, by running the ducts between light fixtures, requires careful physical integration. Unifying the systems by using the ceiling cavity as a return air plenum and extracting return air through the light fixtures further compresses the depth of physical space required. If the structure consists of open web joists, trusses, or a space frame, then it is possible that all three systems may be physically integrated into a single zone by carefully interspersing ducts and light fixtures within the structure.

Connections between components and among systems in general constitute another aspect of physical integration. This is also where architectural details are generated. The structural, thermal, and physical integrity of the joints between different materials must be carefully considered. How they meet is just as important as how they are separated in space.

Exposed and formally expressive components of a building combine to create its image. This is true of the overall visual idea of the building as well as of the character of rooms and of individual elements, down to the smallest details.

The manner in which components share in a cumulative image is decided through acts of visual integration. Color, size, shape, and placement are common factors that can be manipulated in order to achieve the desired effect, so knowledge of the various components’ visual character is essential to integrating them.

Visual harmony among the many parts of a building and their agreement with the intended visual effects of design often provide some opportunities for combining technical requirements with aesthetic goals. Light fixtures, air-conditioning, plumbing fixtures, and a host of other elements are going to have a presence in the building anyway.

Ignoring them or trying to cover them with finishes or decoration is futile. Technical criteria and the systems that satisfy those functional demands require large shares of the resources that go into building. It follows that architects should be able to select, configure, and deploy building elements in ways that satisfy both visual and functional objectives.

If physical integration is “shared space” and visual integration is “shared image,” then performance integration must have something to dowith shared functions. A load-bearing wall, for example, is both envelope and structure, so it unifies two functions into one element by replacing two columns, a beam, and the exterior wall. This approach can save cost and reduce complexity if it is appropriate to the task at hand.

Performance integration is also served by meshing or overlapping the functions of two components, even without actually combining the pieces. This may be called “shared mandates.” In a direct-gain passive solar heating system, for example, the floor of the sunlit space is sharing in the thermal work of the envelope and the mechanical heating system by providing thermal storage in its massive heat capacity, which limits indoor temperature swings from sunlit day to cold starry night. The envelope, structure, interior, and services are integrated by the shared thermal mandate of maintaining comfortable temperatures.

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