“Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs…”

Many will recognize this quote from the movie Die Hard from 20th Century Studios.  Our protagonist, John McClane visits Nakatomi Plaza to patch things up with his wife Holly at her Christmas party.  And yes, I am squarely in the camp that recognizes this movie as a Christmas movie (but that is another post, altogether).  John expects to see his wife, tolerate some small talk with her colleagues, have a few drinks and maybe reconcile with his family.  Instead, he finds himself barefoot in an air duct dodging shady bad guys of indeterminate national origin.  I sympathize with John some days.

I replay this scene in my head more days than you would think.   No; I am not an off-duty policeman.  I’m just an architect.  I am the kind of architect that gets the call when things aren’t working right.  I quite often find myself popping ceiling tiles and access panels and shoving my head into a concealed space not intended for human occupation.

Recently, I was called out to investigate an issue with an outdoor generator by one of our oldest and dearest clients.  No problem.  It was kind of cold, but that was to be expected, looking at a generator in the out of doors.  But as these things tend to go, there was something else the client wondered if I could take a look at, “while you’re here.”  I get this a lot.

The repaired sprinkler line as seen through the 5-lb hole.
“Now I know what a TV dinner feels like.” ~ John McClane

There had been a very swift cold snap recently along with some pretty high winds, and soon after, a sprinkler pipe had burst above their kitchen.  It was all fixed now, but I was asked to look and see if I could tell why it happened and how to prevent it from happening in the future.  While I’ve worked in many areas of their facility, our firm had not ever done any work in their kitchen, although there had been a recent kitchen fit-out and re-roofing of the area.  Five minutes later, I found myself in the kitchen (with a hairnet on mind you) on a ladder, trying to carefully insert my 10 pound head through a 5 pound hole.  I felt a little like John McClane…

Commercial kitchens are a funny space in so far as they have tons of heat producing appliances on one hand, and exhaust hoods that suck immense volumes of hot, moist air out of the kitchen on the other hand.  In order to prevent a vacuum, similar quantities of “make up” air must be pumped into the space.  This make up air is less humid and often cooler than you might expect, in order to keep the hard working staff comfortable with all the grills, boiling water and fryers.  This air pressure imbalance can pull air from where you don’t want it, like directly from the outside in through tiny little air gaps.  I think that is what is happening here.  The highly sensitive temperature sensor that I always carry with me (the bald spot atop my 10 pound noggin) told me so.

A few years earlier, in the same building, we cut a Jim-sized hole in the wall under a stair tower so I could crawl in and see how that space was framed in order to ascertain whether some proposed alterations would work.  That space had been enclosed for five decades unseen by any human; that is until I showed up.  We needed to see where the columns really were, and whether the walls had enough drywall on them to be rated 2 hours.  This was actually a lot easier than we thought it would be – the space was not filled with spiders, rats, alligators or shady bad guys.  Plus we found the answers to all of our questions, and fairly easily.  I didn’t have to crawl out of the air duct and jump across an elevator shaft to do it, either.  We will leave this delightful movie inaccuracy for another post – if your elevator shaft connects to all your building’s ductwork, you have more problems than just Hans Gruber stealing your bearer bonds from your vault!

We did several things under that stair: 1. Found a column. 2. Verified type and number of layers of drywall. 3. Verified properly sealed penetrations.