Building design trends are constantly evolving as architects and building designers find new ways to improve building aesthetics, design, efficiency, and comfort. These trends range from improved energy efficiency protocols, to sustainable building practices, to finding new ways to incorporate building components like HVAC systems as design elements.

In looking at building trends, it doesn’t take long to see that energy efficiency is a hot-button issue. Energy efficiency requirements are becoming more stringent, sustainability and green building design are gaining popularity, and reducing the carbon footprint of the building is a priority. And rightfully so.

Today, buildings account for approximately 40 percent of the energy consumption in the US1. Of this energy use, space heating alone accounted for approximately 25 percent of the total energy use in 20122. Finding ways to reduce this energy draw is key to ensuring that our structures can survive in a world and economy that is putting more and more emphasis on energy efficiency and sustainability.

Johns Manville black and white duct wrap

As the need to control the acoustical and thermal properties of exposed HVAC and pipe systems has become more pressing, the insulation industry has had to respond with materials that are designed to be incorporated into the building aesthetic rather than hidden behind it. Johns Manville's line of Microlite FSK duct wrap (pictured here) promises to meet aesthetics and energy efficiency. 

This is where insulation becomes integral. Insulation is one of the key factors that can help building designers create more efficient buildings, meet increasingly stringent energy code requirements, and find ways to sustainably operate the structures where we live and work. That being said, insulation has traditionally had one flaw: it hasn’t been designed for aesthetic applications. Traditional building designs hide insulation in wall cavities, behind drywall, and above ceiling panels. Why? Because insulation is usually a material used for function and rarely for form.

However, as building design trends evolve and change, we are seeing an increased emphasis on utilizing spaces that have historically been tucked behind façades. Just walk into any restaurant or coffee shop, and look up; you’ll see that designers have left the ceiling exposed, ducts, pipes, and all.

Rather than hiding HVAC and piping systems behind ceiling tiles, today’s designers are using the industrial feel of spiral ducts and pipes to create a statement piece, incorporating it into the aesthetic design of the space. By removing ceiling panels, designers are not only adding unique design elements to the space (in the form of spiral ducts, pipes, and even support beams), but they are also creating larger spaces that feel more open to the building occupants. 

With the advent of exposed ceilings, however, we have also seen new challenges for building designers. Exposed ceilings create larger spaces to condition, which can be prohibitive for designers attempting to meet more stringent energy efficiency requirements. Additionally, as insulation is not typically designed to be left exposed, designers have had to decide between leaving duct or pipe systems uninsulated or choosing an insulation that doesn’t fit the rest of the design motif in the space.

Foregoing the insulation for aesthetic purposes is not recommended as it can create additional problems for the space. Namely, an uninsulated duct is not only running less efficiently than an insulated duct, but it also runs the risk of forming condensation on the duct surface. This occurs because of the temperature difference between the air running through the duct and the air outside the duct. Condensation can lead to mold and mildew growth, it can damage surrounding structures around the duct or pipe, and, if it drips onto the floor, it can create a hazard for building occupants.

In addition to providing temperature and condensation control, insulation can also be integral to controlling the acoustics of the space, which is a key component to many of the new building standards, like LEED or WELL Building Standard.

As the need to control the acoustical and thermal properties of exposed HVAC and pipe systems has become more pressing, the insulation industry has had to respond with materials that are designed to be incorporated into the building aesthetic rather than hidden behind it. These materials are unique in that they offer thermal and/or acoustical performance while still providing an attractive outward finish that matches the interior design elements of the space.

Newest on the market is Johns Manville’s (JM) black duct wrap, Microlite® Black PSK. This material is a black-coated PSK facing on a formaldehyde-free duct wrap. The facing has a black matte finish that was designed specifically for aesthetic applications. The insulation offers thermal control to the wrapped duct system, and the black facing offers a 0.02 perm vapor barrier that is ideal for condensation control. Additionally, Microlite Black PSK was released with a matching tape. Both the color and the scrim pattern on the tape match the duct wrap exactly to ensure that the finished product is visually consistent without obvious variations in the color or scrim pattern on the facing.

In addition to the black-coated PSK duct wrap, JM also offers a white duct wrap, Microlite® White PSK duct wrap. This material offers the same benefits as the black duct wrap, and it also comes with a matching white PSK tape.

In many cases, system designers prefer the industrial look of a metal spiral duct to an insulation-wrapped duct. In this situation, there are different solutions that designers can implement to insulate the duct without hindering the aesthetics. For example, JM’s Spiracoustic Plus® is a pre-kerfed insulation board designed to line spiral duct systems.

JM’s Spiracoustic Plus insulation board

The kerfs are manufactured at varying widths to accommodate large diameter (LD), small diameter (SD), and very small diameter (VSD) duct sizes. The insulation has an antimicrobial coating on the surface to protect the insulation from microbial growth, and it is designed to slide directly into a spiral duct system during fabrication. Spiracoustic Plus reduces the weight of the overall system by entirely removing the core metal duct that is required in a double-wall system.

Additionally, Spiracoustic Plus offers acoustical and thermal control (whereas duct wrap only offers thermal control). This is an excellent solution for reducing noise generated from the fan, crosstalk and air moving down the duct.

There are a variety of other insulating materials out there for HVAC and mechanical systems that are designed to be used in aesthetic applications, including JM’s new poly-top, paper-free insulation facing on our 800 Series Spin-Glas Ultra fiberglass board.

This article originally appeared in the Janurary 2020 issue of SNIPS magazine.