Ductwork. To hide or not to hide? That is the question.

February 17, 2016 by Chris Drake

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Ductwork is a network of pathways built to distribute conditioned air from the HVAC unit(s) to the building environment. Air conditioning and ductwork go hand in hand. Other than a few special HVAC system types, you can’t have one without the other.

Ductwork comes in all shapes, sizes, materials and visual aesthetics. With the growth in popularity of open building environments and the push toward a modern minimalist building aesthetic, ductwork has moved up the list of design considerations for both architects and owners.

Ductwork generally falls into two distinct categories:

  1. Exposed Ductwork
  2. Concealed Ductwork (or above-ceiling)

Exposed Ductwork

Exposed ductwork can be designed to add visual impact or it can be designed to disappear into the overhead building environment.  The ductwork shape, material, and final finish will determine which of these aesthetics will be achieved in the final product.  Below are some representative cases of the different types and styles of exposed ductwork used in different building environments.

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Spiral ductwork in a galvanized finish.


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Spiral ductwork painted to match neighboring architectural elements.

Though ductwork is typically fabricated from sheet metal, fabric ductwork is a growing segment of the exposed ductwork market.  Fabric ductwork has some advantages over rigid metal ductwork.  Some of those advantages include: lower material costs, reduced installation time and cost, uniform air distribution, easy ductwork cleaning, lower material weight, and custom colors.  Although fabric ductwork provides these advantages and more, it may not be ideal for all applications or building environments.  It is best to consult with the design team early on to decide if fabric ductwork is right for your project.

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Red fabric ductwork provides some visual contrast in this otherwise bland space.

Concealed Ductwork

Ductwork that is routed above an architectural ceiling can be constructed with insulated duct board or rigid sheet metal.  The later requires fiberglass insulation be installed on the exterior of the ductwork to prevent the accumulation of condensation on the outside of the duct.  The insulation is wrapped around the duct similar to the picture shown below.

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Concealed ductwork is configured with a main duct or “trunk line” with branch ducts connecting the main duct trunk to the various air devices in the space. This complex network is concealed above the ceiling and isn’t usually given a passing thought as long as the space is comfortable. Concealed ductwork allows the architect to highlight the look and the feel of the space without consideration to the HVAC system other than the type of diffuser used in the ceiling.

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This diagram shows a rooftop HVAC unit with a ductwork riser that connects to typical floor ductwork and air devices.


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Concealed ductwork connects to sidewall slot diffusers in this clean modern aesthetic

Are you a big football fan and want your favorite team color, fabric ductwork on your next project? Perhaps a clean, minimalist design with concealed ductwork is more your style? Ductwork is a necessity in virtually every project so make informed decisions early on and you will not only have an aesthetically pleasing design, but you will be comfortable as well.

Our mechanical and electrical engineering, HVAC, and plumbing design services team members are proven leaders in innovation and conscious of the need to balance functionality, cost, energy conservation and integration with aesthetic architectural elements. We proactively meet the challenges of achieving occupant comfort, meeting code-mandated operating parameters and concealing large equipment both visually and audibly. Contact us today to learn more.

Written by Chris Drake

Chris Drake

Chris Drake is the Plumbing Discipline Leader at BIG RED DOG. He received a degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY and is a registered P.E. His professional experience includes the design of plumbing and HVAC systems in the campus, institutional, sports, federal, and manufacturing markets. His is also experienced in design/build, construction administration, and is a member of ASHRAE and ASPE. Chris originally hails from the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Outside of work, Chris enjoys exploring Austin and the surrounding hill country, traveling, and supporting the Buffalo Bills.