Quicker, cheaper and more efficient could be a mantra for contemporary construction and remodeling. Low-profile, raised-access flooring has always fit that bill and is growing in popularity. While initially used in data centers and mainframe computer rooms, it is now in schools, offices, retail spaces, hospitals and entertainment venues.

For electrical contractors working with access flooring, the world of design and construction moves from behind a wall to the surface of a concrete floor. There, a map of junction boxes; conduit; data cables; and maybe heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment lie, eliminating a world of ladders, core drills and pulling wire.

Picture a raised floor supported by high-strength legs. The floor is composed of large, durable, attractive panels. Power, voice and data outlets are recessed. The occasional floor access cover houses electrical boxes that plug into a cable leading to a junction box. The floor box can be unplugged and moved, as can data and voice cable for easy change-out to accommodate expansion needs, e.g., high-tech conference room. Even the HVAC housed under the floor can be changed. That is a snapshot of raised-access flooring featuring modular design. Not all access floor projects will feature a modular installation, but all electrical design will remain under the raised floor.

Free Axez USA in Burlington, N.J., became a low-profile access floor provider nearly nine years ago. The manufacturer’s product accommodates modular power.

“Wire management has always been a goal of our approach,” said Earl Geertgens, president of the firm. “The market is definitely evolving. I tip my hat to competitors such as Steelcase and Haworth. They recognized different markets for this product. When one company finds a new customer or application, it opens the door for all of us and expands the market. We’re just completing work on a 20,000-square-foot installation for the city of Chicago’s emergency calling center.”

Haworth Inc., headquartered in Holland, Mich., is doing well in a down economy with its TecCrete flooring, movable walls and related power and cable-installation systems. Access flooring is one division of Haworth, which is known for its design and manufacture of office furniture.

“We’ve actually doubled our low-profile access flooring manufacturing capacity,” said Laura Stadler, associate product manager for flooring and technology.

“We’re seeing under-floor installation becoming an architectural choice for electric and HVAC installation,” Stadler said. “It is not just the architects but property and facility managers who are influencing a move to access flooring for certain projects.”

She spelled out some of the cost advantages to freely being able to reconfigure spaces within a building. According to Stadler, you are not breaking walls when you move electrical or HVAC.Incorporating movable walls adds even more flexibility and means minimal drywall work. In addition, an HVAC system that blows air up from the floor requires smaller blowers as hot air rises. Air is also cleaner as any airborne pollutants also rise upward and out the ceiling air return. The process also significantly reduces ductwork.

Such sustainable merits have helped clients who pursue green certification to earn the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) points.

A low-profile access floor is defined by its distance from the base floor. Six inches or less is a general rule of thumb. Free Axez’ product raises the floor 1.5 inches unless HVAC is installed underneath. Haworth’s model is generally 6 inches, but can be higher to meet specific installation needs. While both companies feature modular power options, Stadler said not all jurisdictions recognize modular power in their codes. Contractors need to be aware which do and do not.

Discovering access flooring

“Our industry is built on word-of-mouth,” Geertgens said. “Once people try raised flooring, repeat business follows.”

Stadler concurred. Both agree that, though access flooring has gained recognition, hands-on education is still necessary. Product installations at corporate headquarters, dealer showrooms and trade shows are common marketing stategies. Even after a sale, Free Axez dealers send sample product ahead of a project start, so on-site contractors can become familiar with access flooring.

“We make sure to brief ECs on our product,” Geertgens said, adding that, “Within 10 minutes, they know what to do.”

“In simple terms, the EC is essentially mapping out where to install a floor box under a floor panel,” Stadler said. “That floor box will connect to a splitter that leads to a junction box. As long as you have estimated your cable runs correctly, you’re good to go.”

Pyramid Electrical Contractors Inc., Fairview Heights, Ill., serves the greater St. Louis region. As a full-service contractor for multiple markets, the company’s first exposure to raised flooring was a project two years ago for Scott Air Force Base in Bellevue, Ill.

“It is not uncommon for the military to renovate and reconfigure areas on the base,” said Mike Kemper, project manager and Pyramid partner.

The Scott project involved creating office space while renovating a building.

“It was a competitively bid project,” he said. “We worked closely with the access floor installer [Jessup, Md.-based Tate Access Floors Inc.]. It was important to put together a roadmap or floorplan to avoid things like running conduit over tray. We were also installing communication cabling. We had to know in advance where each workstation would sit. We then could wire accordingly. This specific project, for the most part, had two uninterruptible power circuits and one normal power circuit for every four workstations. Everything was protected by the appropriate size circuit breaker.”

Kemper also worked with his wiring supplier, Hubbell.

“They advised us how the electrical design needed to come together and gave us feedback on our drawings and blueprints. There’s a lot of upfront coordination with access flooring projects, but for the most part, once you’re on-site, its one trade person and the floor installer working at one time. That helps.”

While access flooring can save time (days to weeks) over traditional construction or remodel methods, that time saving was put to the test for McDonald Electrical Corp. based in Hingham, Mass. A year ago, the firm was working on its first raised floor office installation of a 10,000-square-foot space. The client, Leggat McCall Properties, a property-development firm in Boston, wanted to turn its own office into an example of sustainable, flexible and affordable office design. It also wanted it done in 15 business days.

“This was a very fast design/build using a raised-floor system,” said Michael P. McDonald, president of McDonald Electrical Corp. “I sat down with the general contractor [Commodore Builders] and a representative from Leggat McCall. This project was unique for all of us.”

McDonald estimated his firm spent up to three months project planning.

“An estimator, a foreman and I developed our own draft design to get a firmer picture of pricing and project cost. This was before we won the project. It helped us win this work. We worked hand in hand with our vendor, AFC Cable Systems, selecting the right floor outlets, cable lengths, distribution boxes and feeder systems, really the entire topography for the electrical and data design under the flooring.”

For McDonald, logistics was the biggest challenge.

“We had to make sure we laid out our cable pathways so they worked around the raised flooring supports as well as HVAC contractor work,” McDonald said.

The company also had to install a floor-accessible fire alarm/smoke detection system. Meanwhile, the general contractor created a daily blueprint showing the project team what to accomplish that day. The project met its deadline and the office space earned Boston’s first Commercial Interiors (CI) LEED Platinum rating.

A builder’s need

“The flexibility gains for the HVAC and electric was the motivator in using raised flooring on the Leggat McCall project,” said David Conner, project manager for Commodore Builders in Newton, Mass. “Having an electrical contractor who wasn’t afraid to step up and try new things really helped us. Too often, we find contractors tied to convention. In contrast, McDonald took the ball and ran.”

The “ball” was working for the first time with self-powered wireless lighting controls from Illumra, Orem, Utah, that incorporated occupancy sensors and daylighting features.

“We turned to McDonald for electrical and lighting design,” Conner added. “That required them to be especially responsive to price changes and revisions for fixtures, switches, cabling, boxes and other items we and the client threw at them.”

New work

Commodore Builders is ready to assemble a new team when the next access floor project reveals itself.

“I was impressed with how quickly we could wire electrical and telecom,” Conner said. “The speed for roughing it in was impressive as was the floor box flexibility and the overall reconfiguration ability. We take on a lot of remodeling projects and are marketing the entire project team’s work with Leggat McCall.”

Meanwhile, McDonald Electrical’s Web site is being revamped to promote its modular electrical skills.

“We have always found raised-access flooring to be a very simple product to install,” McDonald said. “Any trepidation we had early on disappeared once we worked with this product.”

Pyramid has continued to win access floor work. It is just completing a new project at Scotts Air Force Base for a 210,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art transportation command center. Access floor wiring will be used to support lighting, power and equipment, and cabling for services, such as video teleconferencing in operations centers, offices, and conference and meeting rooms.

“We see a big market out there for access flooring and modular electric installation,” Kemper said. “To us, there’s nothing but ‘upside’ to this work.”

GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction, landscaping and related design industries. He can be reached at gavocomm@comcast.net.