Convia Adds Flexibility To Infrastructure

March 2, 2007
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The innovative new
product decreases the
need for larger building
renovations to match
the changing needs of a
business — and saves
energy, too.

Convia, a recent launch from the Herman Miller Creative Office, is rapidly gaining momentum among architects and building owners, as the programmable power and data infrastructure product introduces a new degree of flexibility to the built environment.

“The problem we were looking at was how to make a commercial building more flexible and sustainable,” said Jim Long, a Creative Office researcher on Purple, the project that produced Convia. “What makes buildings less flexible than their owners want them to be? The most obvious thing is walls, and then there is utility delivery, plumbing, HVAC and electrical.”

Walls are actually one of the easier areas to address — several firms have movable wall products on the market, and at worst, a wall can be torn down or erected in a matter of days. Plumbing and HVAC can also be rerouted with relative ease.

As an example, Long cited a 24-person conference room, a common design among Herman Miller clients. Over the course of a year, a company might study the use of the room, and determine that only on rare occasions are more than six people ever in the room at once, and usually there are only four.

“Occasionally there might be 12 people, but never 24, so you decide to split the room into two,” Long said. “It’s not that difficult to have some guys come in and build a wall and paint it. Add a door at one end, and now you have two conference rooms. But all the lights in both rooms are now controlled by the same switch.”

In addressing that issue, the Creative Office developed a system that was not only modular and flexible, but also programmable. Any device plugged into the Convia infrastructure can be programmed to operate with any switch on the network. This is accomplished by a simple “point and click” system using a remote control “wand.”

Long demonstrated with the Creative Office lights in Herman Miller’s Zeeland headquarters. He pointed the wand at a switch, clicked, and then did the same with a nearby light, creating a link between the two objects. With another switch, he repeated the process with three lights on the opposite side of the room.

The system allows any configuration of devices — lighting fixtures, security cameras, electronic displays, thermostats, speakers, etc. — to be programmed into a system within a matter of seconds, which can be instantly reversed and reorganized.

The Convia infrastructure is a grid system of row-form steel best suited for open ceilings, although it can be fit to finished ceilings or beneath raised floors. Electrical lines are run through the grid, with sensor hubs and electrical outlets positioned at 10-inch intervals throughout. It also carries standard Ethernet connections for Internet devices.

There was high utilization of the system at its test installations, including a Manhattan Urban Outfitters retail store, the library at the Georgia Institute of Technology and others. The retail operations found the most use out of the system, as it allowed constant movement of fixtures to match new displays.

“But the idea isn’t necessarily that I can do this in seconds,” Long said. “It’s that I can make the building last longer. That this can be done in seconds misrepresents what we’re trying to do here.”

According to Long, the value proposition of the product is found in its ability to decrease the need for larger renovations to match the fluid space needs of business today.

“In today’s fast-paced marketplace, companies are constantly up- or downsizing,” said Randy Storch, president of the Chicago-based Convia spin-off. “Renovating space can be a headache for all parties involved.”

It’s also extremely wasteful: On average, the renovation of a 20,000-square-foot space produces waste of 10,000 feet of branch conduit, 600 backboxes, 40,000 feet of circuit wire, 62,000 feet of voice and data cable and all associated fittings and supports.

Convia officially launched at sustainable design trade show Greenbuild 2006 in November, and according to director of marketing Jane Chadesh, already has lined up 4 million square feet of potential installation.

A particular selling point has been an independent study conducted by The Weidt Group in Chicago showing that Convia provides annual energy savings of 6 percent to 30 percent over traditional electrical systems. If used to complement a pre-existing system, building owners can achieve 20 percent to 60 percent of those savings.

“This has changed the economics for business owners looking to implement energy conservation programs,” said Chadesh. “Usually it only makes sense to do so at a major restack.”

Brian Bascom, principal of Velocity Partners, a Holland-based consulting firm that has worked with Herman Miller and other office interiors firms, agreed that the cost savings make Convia a compelling solution.

“As tenants look for ways to manage the cost of operating a space, technologies like this will be very effective,” he said. “The adoption of this will depend on whether building owners and developers will see that value.”

Herman Miller first attempted to commercialize the technology as a retail display infrastructure system called Motis, the signature product of its ill-fated Viaro spin-off.     CQX

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