Custom homes seem to be popping up on every corner in every city. These big, sprawling homes can be anywhere from 4,000 to 20,000 sq ft, and each one is designed just a little differently than all the others on the block.

Unfortunately, the architect often doesn’t leave room for ductwork or a mechanical room; or an even worse scenario can occur when the architect has made no provisions at all for an hvac system.

It seems rather strange that an architect could forget the comfort needs of his or her clients, but it happens all too often. When the light bulb finally goes off, and the architect suddenly remembers that heating and cooling will be required, the contractor often has little choice left.

Thankfully, there are systems available that can be used in these situations. These systems require little to no additional construction during installation, and flexible ductwork can usually be threaded easily through walls and ceilings.

The best part is that these systems can create a comfortable living space while saving energy.

These flexible mini-ducts weave easily through existing construction, so it only takes an electrician's fish tape attached to the end of the mini-ducts, and a contractor can feed that through the walls and the ceiling.

Tight (Or No) Spaces

Architects usually work directly with the homeowners, and homeowners, in general, are more interested in flooring, kitchen cabinets, wallpaper, and doors and windows than their heating and air conditioning systems. Shannon Intagliata, national sales manager, Unico, Inc., St. Louis, MO, remembers seeing a report that listed all the concerns homeowners had when they’re building a house. Not surprisingly, heating and air conditioning appeared fourth from the bottom of the list.

However, two weeks after homeowners move into a house, the number one complaint they all had was the heating and air conditioning. “People don’t give heating and air conditioning the consideration they should, and architects are so keyed into the aesthetics that they don’t think about the homeowners’ comfort level,” says Intagliata.

He notes that his company is often brought in when a house is already being built. Intagliata tells a story of a celebrity in Beverly Hills, CA, who was having a house built. “The walls were up, the foundation was in, they were starting to put the roof on, and they realized they made no provisions for heating and air. Five contractors went in and said they could put in systems, but it would be necessary to drop the ceiling, move the walls, and do a lot of carpentry work.”

Instead, this celebrity ended up with a Unico System, because no alterations would need to be made to the house. The system’s flexible mini-ducts weave easily through existing construction, so it only takes an electrician’s fish tape attached to the end of the mini-ducts, and a contractor can feed that through the walls.

David Mayo, owner, David Mayo Heating and Air Conditioning, Dana Point, CA, is one contractor who often has to rely on Unico Systems due to architectural elements. “One project we just completed was extremely difficult due to architectural restraints.

“The oceanfront home in Southern California faces southwest with two-story glass windows. The mechanical room was very small, and there was little room for any hvac system,” says Mayo.

This was no ordinary house. It had a subterranean garage and exercise room, as well as an aviary, indoor and outdoor fish ponds, and an indoor saltwater aquarium. Mayo ended up using five Unico direct-expansion, cooling-only systems and a hydronic closed-loop space heating system, with cogenerated domestic hot water and some floor warming in the kitchen and nook. All systems are controlled by a “Smart House” central computer system.

“Owners, architects, and designers have a tough time understanding the laws of physics,” notes Mayo. “Oftentimes the architecture has become the deciding factor in regard to the choice of an hvac system.”

David Mayo, owner, David Mayo Heating and Air Conditioning, Dana Point, CA, says that often the architecture has become the deciding factor in regard to the choice of an hvac system.

What’s Available (And What It Costs)

The cooling-only application uses a six-row-deep coil; air is drawn, rather than pushed, across the coil. What that does, according to Unico, is remove 30% more moisture than a conventional system. To a homeowner, that could mean being able to set the thermostat at 76 degrees Farenheit, but the house will actually achieve a 72 degrees comfort level. That results in energy savings, which is on everyone’s mind these days.

The system itself is virtually hidden, with 2-in.-I.D. outlets that come in white, paintable plastic, or white oak that can be stained to match any surface. The ½ - by 8-in. slotted outlets are white as well, so they can be painted (very important in custom homes). The system works off a principle called aspiration, which involves bringing air into the room and creating a comfort bubble.

“We bring in air at 2,000 fpm and we have a gentle mixing action through the room, which we guarantee has no more than a 1 degrees to 2 degrees variance anywhere inside that room. There’s no stratification problem. The aspiration effect also brings the room up to temperature quicker than a conventional system,” says Intagliata.

Another product that Unico recently introduced is the “Unichiller,” a stand-alone unit that can provide 35 degrees water. It can provide zoned cooling with a single unit, using multiple air handlers instead of the separate condensers required by traditional air conditioning. Three-, four-, and five-ton models are available and can be adapted to any style of chilled-water air handler or fancoil unit, the company says.

There are two reasons why the Unichiller is exciting to many people. First, it can be installed 150 to 200 ft or more away from the house, so likely it won’t be visible from a window view, which many custom home homeowners definitely think is a big benefit.

Second, people like the green side of it. “You’re running chilled water. There’s no refrigerant going into your house, everything can be buried under the ground safely,” says Intagliata.

And, according to Intagliata, the chilled-water system is even easier to install than the cooling-only system, because the only thing contractors have to do is size the pipe. That depends on how far away from the house the chiller will be.

On the heating side, the company offers a heat pump coil and a hot water coil, both of which, like their straight-cooling counterpart, have deep or thick heat exchangers to produce a greater temperature rise compared to conventional coils. With air being drawn across a greater surface area, the heat pump can deliver air that is about 20 degrees warmer air than a conventional heat pump.

This means that the Unico System heat pump coil eliminates “cold blow,” the number one complaint of conventional heat pumps. The air from the outlets is always warmer than a person’s body temperature, the company says. With electric duct heaters, and especially its hot water coil, the system can deliver even greater heat.

These systems are increasingly being used as secondary systems in homes that have radiant or hot water heating. In those cases, it may take several cycles before the water is brought up to temperature. “People will put in our heat pump or hot water coil, so on those mornings when they wake up and there’s a chill in the air, they turn the heat pump on and get immediate heat for the first couple hours that they’re out of bed, then turn it off,” says Intagliata.

For supplementary heat or small heating requirements, the Unico System hot water coil can even be connected to a hot water heater.

As can be expected, the systems are more expensive than traditional heating and air conditioning systems. Basically, when you’re comparing equipment to equipment, the Unico System will likely cost about 20% to 25% more than a conventional system.

“But when you take into account that even in a retrofit or a custom home, what with the cost of the build-out that the installer is going to have to do to put in a conventional system, then we’re apples to apples — a pretty even comparison. But the amount of comfort is unbelievably greater,” notes Intagliata.

And when you consider many of these homes cost upwards of a million dollars, most homeowners won’t balk at a few extra dollars to ensure their comfort.