Flexibility is one of the most important attributes of an open plan office design, but it can’t exist without a way to put power and data everywhere your employees need it.
Building owners and interior designers are increasingly focusing on creating multipurpose spaces that can transform to meet different needs throughout the day and evening. Think of a collaborative space that can host a yoga class at night, or a lobby or café that can accommodate large staff meetings when the furniture is rearranged.
This need for reconfiguration creates constant challenges for power, data and communications cabling that will only multiply as flexibility for future renovations becomes a more prominent need.
Workplaces are constantly changing, from alternate uses for certain spaces to hot desking setups that require workstations to be able to meet the needs of many different jobs. Agile spaces offer owners and managers a way to maximize their return on the investment that they pour into their buildings, and they need connectivity to match.
“Building owners are trying to maximize their dollar output per square foot. For a long time, that meant cramming a lot of people into a space or doing an open office type of benching system where you had more people per square foot,” explains Chris Culley, director of product development for Connectrac, a leading raceway manufacturer.
“Then people realized that had some downsides, so they went to a model that was more hybridized with some more dense sections and some less dense sections. The industry is constantly changing and shifting to try to figure out how to make offices work as well for them as possible. It’s about reconfigurability and a product that adapts to that and makes it work for them,” Culley explains.
Traditional Power Solutions
Two retrofit solutions have long been used to run power to new places in existing buildings.
1. Core drilling: Punching a hole in the concrete to run wires through the ceiling of the floor below. Used for upper floors.
2. Trenching: Digging a trench to hold the cabling. Used for the ground floor.
Both of these destructive solutions successfully hide wires and cables rather than leaving them out in the open, but they also come with several key disadvantages:
Digging up concrete isn’t cheap. Crews will have to bring in specialized equipment to create holes or trenches in the floor.
“A specifier or designer will say ‘Here’s where I want the furniture. Here’s the power and here’s where I need the power,’” says Steve Batchelder, director of sales for Connectrac. “Later on, the floor is X-rayed. It’s not until that time that they know whether they can actually cut the hole there. Is there a steel beam or a tension rod under there? Will I mess up the building’s integrity? We don’t know that until after the design.”
Core drilling and trenching can’t be done in an occupied space because of the noise and dust both methods create. The change can negatively impact occupants’ productivity and also keeps you from using your entire facility, both of which can cost you money.
Core drilling and trenching also require extra steps like dust containment and water protection, as well as replacing the ceiling below if you’re core drilling.
Core drilling also poses a problem for your downstairs neighbors in tenanted buildings, who may not even sign off on the damage to their ceiling and disruption to their operations. Without their permission, you won’t be able to core drill, which further limits your options for cable management.
As soon as you break up the concrete, you’re essentially tethered to that space for the rest of the time you stay in it. This limits your future reconfiguration options.
The permanence of core drilling and trenching can also be a non-starter if you don’t own the building you’re occupying; the building owner may or may not be willing to let you create permanent holes in the floor.
You also have to consider the destructive aspect of these methods, which leaves you vulnerable to making mistakes.
“If the work isn’t closely monitored, the core drills could land in the wrong place and the owner and manager will be frustrated,” Batchelder says.
He continues with this example: “We had a customer with 252 core drills cut into their floor. That in and of itself is a financial problem, but after spending all that money and time, they found that each core drill needed to be moved 3 feet. That’s 3 feet on 252 core drills. It would have been much easier and more cost effective to use raceways from the beginning. Just because you can core drill doesn’t mean you should.”
At some point, the floor can’t be drilled or trenched anymore, which limits future flexibility.
“The core drill almost immediately becomes an anchor because it’s going to stay there no matter what you do to that building,” says Batchelder. “If you can put in a grid and just plug and unplug wherever you’re going to need it in that space, it becomes a live system, whereas the alternative is an archaic boat anchor that’s just there.”
Power poles are also popular for retrofit applications because they can hide wires and cables coming down from the ceiling. However, the ceiling-height poles often end up in the middle of workstations, where they create a visual obstruction that’s irritating for people who are trying to see around them to communicate with a coworker.
They can also create navigation issues if they end up in the middle of a walkway by making the paths too small for people who use mobility aids to fit through. ADA clearly requires you to create hallways and paths through the workplace that are big enough for wheelchairs or other mobility equipment to fit through. Power poles in the middle of the walking path are inconvenient for able-bodied people, but could mean the difference between being able to get through a space or not for people with disabilities – which could set you up for a lawsuit and a tarnished reputation.
What is a Raceway?
Raceways in their simplest form are metal troughs with hinged or removable covers. They provide a safe, secure home for wires and cables that would otherwise be left exposed and in the way.
They’re typically installed by either screwing them into the concrete slab or attaching them with construction adhesive in a simple process that an electrical contractor or a facilities professional with electrical training can do easily.
These diagrams show the components of an under-carpet raceway. Carpet tiles are laid on top of the raceway after it’s installed so that only the device cover is visible.
A small, unobtrusive hole is cut into the base of the nearby wall to pass cables through. The power wiring and the prewired raceway are connected to the junction box. Data cabling is placed alongside the power wires inside the raceway, which keeps the two apart with a built-in separator.
Then, the installation is as easy as temporarily removing the carpet tile where you plan to put the raceway and associated transition ramps. One carpet tile will have a small whole removed so that the cables can terminate there. That’s where you’ll install the electrical device that people will plug their devices into.
This simple strategy stands in stark contrast to the destructive methods of core drilling and trenching. Raceways emerged as an alternative to them all.
The straightforward solution of raceways addresses two perennial pain points for building owners and facilities managers:
- Reconfiguring a space without core drilling or trenching
- Avoiding the potential consequences of not corralling cables properly
Challenge 1: Power and Data without Destruction
Renovating a space sometimes seems like it causes more challenges than it solves. Today’s agile workplaces need to accommodate all sorts of flexible work modes, including:
1. Hoteling, in which employees use shared desks, offices or cubicles that they usually schedule ahead of time
2. Hot desking, which provides employees with a wide variety of workspace types that they can choose from depending on the tasks they need to accomplish.
Both require you to provide a variety of space types in different sizes that can accommodate different work modes, such as heads-down focus work, collaborative work, learning and socializing in more casual settings.
All of these work modes have different power, data and AV needs that will have to be delivered to each workspace in the safest and most efficient way possible.
Those power, data and AV connections usually stem from the wall, but once you start moving chairs, desks, tables and partitions, those connections aren’t as easy to access anymore. You’ll need an alternative option when having your cubicles hug the wall is no longer an option. That’s where raceways come in.
Moving connectivity into the cores of spaces requires a more flexible solution than the old, destructive methods of core drilling and trenching and a less obstructive option than floor-to-ceiling power poles.
“People need power and data in spaces where they didn’t need it before,” says Batchelder. “They don’t want to restrict the environment because the space needs to feel good and make people want to come to work and feel productive. No one wants to do it the old-fashioned way with high walls, cubicles and power poles running down, but yet those were very functional. So how do we create function in these spaces?”
Creating that needed function during a reconfiguration project is made more difficult by the varying needs of different room uses.
An office might need clusters of cables for workstations during the day and a way to discreetly keep them out of the way when the space holds a yoga class in the evening.
Meeting spaces in hospitals can host anything from mindfulness exercises to diabetes education classes or support groups, all of which will need the furniture in the room moved to different locations (or, in the case of an exercise class, simply moved out of the way).
Larger spaces might want rows of seating for training or group activities on some days and a larger open space for hosting special functions on other days.
Here are the seven most typical cabling needs in commercial buildings:
1. Small huddle rooms and executive offices
Smaller spaces usually only have two to four power connections and one to two for data, Culley says.
2. Conference rooms
The complexity of the conference room dictates the cord requirements. Less demanding conference rooms have requirements similar to private offices, possibly with an HDMI cable added for audiovisual needs.
“The exception to that is the more full-blown AV-centric conference rooms. I’ve seen conference rooms with eight individual microphone cords set in front of each person at the conference table running through raceways, as well as the video infrastructure to connect projectors or monitors on the wall,” says Culley.
3. Huddle rooms and pods
Small collaborative spaces and phone booth-style rooms for one or two people are relatively simple ways to create private areas for heads-down work within open office layouts.
These spaces will likely need to accommodate power and data for at least a couple of people. If you don’t provide access to power, people are less likely to use these amenities.
4. Open offices
Each workstation requires the same three to six cables as a private office. But in an open design where workstations are clustered together, the number of cables adds up quickly.
“When you cluster 12 workstations together, that becomes 24 outlets spread over a larger space because the workstations are spread out. That’s six circuits of power needed there and 24 data cables, which is a lot of cabling to get out there,” Culley explains.
Workstation clusters can be spread across a large floor, and almost none of them will hug the wall. It’s one thing to run the occasional wire across the floor (though that’s still a trip hazard). However, the huge bundle of wiring and cables required for a cluster of workstations creates an eyesore that’s also a trip hazard in the middle of your office layout.
5. Rows of seating
Buildings that have large banks of seating, like airports and university lecture halls, need plenty of outlets for people to plug in phones and laptops.
6. Call centers
The classic call center setup includes rows of cubicles, each with its own computer and phone. That means a long string of power and data is needed in a relatively small space.
7. Training rooms and classrooms
Learning spaces often have overlapping needs, regardless of whether they’re a corporate training room, a small-group discussion room at a university or a K-12 classroom. Training rooms all have the potential for needing reconfiguration as well as a handful of power and data connections that are strategically placed around the room for maximum convenience. These spaces may also require AV connections in the front of the room for the trainer or teacher to use.
Putting power and data in a few locations throughout the space allows for maximum flexibility throughout the day, according to the day’s agenda or the teacher’s lesson plan. If students can plug in their devices in a variety of locations within the space, it’s an easier task to have them move their desks into a U-shape for a demonstration one day, or into groups of three or four for small-group discussions the next day.
It’s not difficult to accommodate these needs during construction. The problem, of course, surfaces when it’s time to renovate—or when a room simply needs to accommodate more than one use.
“It impacts the design and use of that space,” Batchelder says. “Today’s buildings need an environment where the youngest to the oldest worker wants to work and can work.”
That requires spaces that can adapt as workers’ needs evolve, Culley adds. A traditional training room with fixed desks and long rows will never be anything but a training room. You can’t move around the fixed furnishings to create something as simple as a U-shaped layout, which can be invaluable for large-group discussions or demonstrating certain concepts.
At that point, you’re faced with either running wires all over the space or cutting more holes in the floor— an option that’s both expensive and limited.
Static spaces can also negatively impact a building’s marketability to future occupants; with the popularity of agile spaces, it’s hard to imagine a potential tenant in your leased building or prospective employee in your owner-occupied building falling in love with a space that can only serve one very limited purpose. A building or office that quickly becomes outdated is less likely to recruit new employees or retain current ones.
“They’re going to be tied to those anchor points, and that’s going to cause tension and frustration down the road because you can’t just keep trenching,” Culley says. “You can’t keep cutting holes in the floor like Swiss cheese. At some point the facilities guys are going to tell you that you can’t do that anymore.”
Challenge 2: The Consequences of Poor Cable Control
It’s possible to avoid the cost of trenching and core drilling without using a raceway, but that means exposing your cabling to crush damage from rolling furniture, foot traffic, mobile technology carts and anything else that rolls over your floor.
The usual solution for this problem involves “very creative uses of gaff tape and duct tape” with the occasional loose carpet tiles laid over the bundle of cables, Batchelder says.
“People use whatever method they have to make it work, whether they’re stringing cables up above or putting lots of tape on it,” he adds. “The danger becomes what happens if that falters? And it is going to falter. You want to have your cables protected because it’s brutal trying to figure out where that error is coming from.”
That danger is the trip hazard presented by a few loose cables or a bundle taped to the floor. It’s easy for people passing through a space to catch their foot on the cables or trip over the bump where you’ve taped cables to the floor.
The potential cost of a liability suit from someone who gets hurt by tripping over your cables far outstrips the cost of containing cords properly in the first place.
Raceways may come with an upfront cost just like any investment in building equipment. However, a lawsuit by an angry visitor or employee who was injured by tripping over a hazard that didn’t need to be there in the first place can be financially debilitating for your business.
Anything big enough to trip someone is also likely to cause problems for people with mobility issues, which means you may also have an accessibility lawsuit on your hands if you don’t get your cables under control.
Accessibility suits stemming from violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) are not only costly, they can damage your reputation in the community as well.
ADA requires at least a 1:12 slope—1 inch of vertical rise for every 12 inches of horizontal run—for any change in height. Anything steeper than that, such as a pile of cables duct-taped to the floor in the middle of an open area that people move through, creates another hurdle for people who are simply trying to navigate your building without getting a wheel, cane or crutch hung up on wires.
A raceway with sloping sides that meets the ADA rise and run requirements will ensure there’s plenty of room for wires and cables without creating a dangerous obstacle.
“With 15 inches of slope on each side, it becomes unnoticeable when you walk. If you put a smaller product in there, such as 10 cables in a 4-inch slot, that becomes more of a trip hazard than 3 feet of a tapered system,” Batchelder explains.
Crucial Considerations for Specifying Raceways
Choosing the right raceway technology for your building should be simple. But there are a few things to take into consideration that could affect which type of raceways you specify and which components you order.
Start by assessing the needs of the spaces in your facility where you plan to deploy raceways. Ask yourself questions like:
- What’s the primary use of my space?
- What else might I use the space for?
- How would those alternate uses change the way furnishings are arranged and the paths people use to navigate through the space?
- How will this space, including the raceways, affect my ability to market your building to people looking to lease space?
After you’ve completed your initial assessment, take a deeper dive into the proposed installation to determine which raceway model is best and where you could place it. This is a more comprehensive look at the project and should include:
1. ADA Compliance
If you think the raceway may end up poking into a walking path, it’s better to opt for a device that can be capped flat at the level of the surrounding carpet, Culley advises. “That immediately makes it an ADA-compliant solution because you’re removing the trip hazard,” he explains.
New raceway products on the market are also more modular and cross-compatible than previous generations of devices. Look into investing in a system that lets you swap out the power devices relatively easily if you suddenly need more power in a certain area of the room.
2. Potential Layouts
Next, develop your initial layouts for the various uses of each room where you’ll install raceways. Enlist the manufacturer’s help if you get stuck or need assistance in figuring out which types of raceways to put in which location.
Some manufacturers have in-house design teams who can advise customers on optimal placement, Batchelder says. “They’ve seen it all,” he adds. “They’re able to figure things out and make recommendations. They’ll help the customer wherever they are [in the process].”
3. Space Upgrades
Look at other upgrades you might make in the space. For example, you might swap out some of the existing seating or desks and replace them with powered furniture. It’s helpful to have an idea of potential changes ahead of time because it will affect how many connections you need to route through your raceways.
Upholstered seating that can connect to a power supply is trending with facility managers and interior designers. Users are drawn to places where they can relax and recharge devices at the same time. Furnishings like this make great additions to collaborative spaces, lobbies and lounges.
4. Cable Quantity
Figure out the quantity of cables you’ll need to run. This will be easier after you’ve considered the other ways in which you might use the room. You can run power and data through the same raceway as long as the device has some kind of separation between the two. Talk to your raceway vendor to make sure that’s the case with the raceways you’re purchasing.
Some products even allow you to put multiple units together—a handy solution if you need a large quantity of power, data or cable connections in one area. For example, this could be a cluster of workstations or an AV-heavy conference room.
It’s always better to bring in the manufacturer sooner rather than later. They’re familiar with their own products and can help you work out a solution that fits your building best, even if your cabling quantity seems impossible.
“We did one for a court system and they had 50-something wires going into this one podium,” notes Batchelder.
5. Mid-Renovation Changes
Don’t worry if it’s late in the renovation game and you’re just now introducing raceways. This technology is well-suited to retrofit and renovation applications, even when you’re nearly finished updating a space.
“Sometimes on a new build or retrofit, they’ll say, ‘We need power here and here, and we need data here and here’ and then forget about it until they get closer to the end,” says Batchelder. “We prefer to come in earlier because it’s nicer for everyone involved, but we can come in at the beginning or the end and not be disruptive.”
“It’s amazing how few people think about some of these things until it’s too late,” Culley adds. “People will say ‘I’m moving in a week and I’ve got to get power to this stuff.’”
10 Lessons Learned from Real-Life Raceway Applications
Facilities of all sizes and types are implementing raceways for the same basic reasons. Raceways provide easy access to power and data for building occupants. They also allow you to gain better cable control, save money and time on core drilling and trenching, and remove unnecessary hurdles.
But like any building technology, it’s a good idea to implement raceways thoughtfully by following best practices.
Consider these 10 tips from other raceway installations when you’re planning your own project:
1. Do a Trial Run First
Pittsburgh International Airport wanted to power up new seating in all four of its concourses, but decision-makers weren’t sure if raceways were ready for primetime.
Instead of taking the risk and rolling out raceways to all four terminals at once, airport management started with a 30-day test in the international concourse, which holds 600 seats. A 24-foot raceway spanned the length of one of the airport’s busiest motorized walkways, subtly placed in the floor just a few feet away.
“They did it for 30 days because in that time, everyone would touch it and step on it. Every vehicle would drive over it for 30 days,” explains Batchelder. “They had to verify durability, that people wouldn’t notice it was there, and that the equipment driving over it wouldn’t have any effect on the raceways. It passed the test.”
2. Account for Design Components
With the trial period delivering a resounding success, Pittsburgh International Airport approached the next challenge in their raceway plan—making the technology work with a variety of floor coverings.
Some areas used carpet, while some used luxury vinyl tile. Connectrac, which provided and installed the raceways, collaborated with the original manufacturers of the flooring to develop a solution that could work for each surface.
The manufacturer of this vinyl tile worked with the raceway and seating manufacturers to develop a solution for the Pittsburgh International Airport that would work for everyone.
“They put a little more patch on it to create an even more floated surface so that they could glue down the vinyl floor tiles,” Batchelder explains. This photo includes the old seating, which had not yet been replaced.
“The real test is the finished product,” Batchelder says of the completed Pittsburgh airport installation.
The two-year-old Metro Vancouver building also needed to account for noteworthy design components. The facility’s owners were in search of a stunning interior that couldn’t be spoiled by loose cables and wires or ugly attempts at covering them up.
Under-carpet raceways proved to be the perfect solution for conference rooms, meeting rooms and other spaces in Metro Vancouver’s office.
3. Identify Existing Problems
A Michigan public library used its renovation to address a longstanding problem: Power outlets were only located on the outer walls. Visitors often brought extension cords from home to plug in their devices, creating a serious tripping hazard for other patrons.
Core drilling was out of the question because the building has radiant heating pipes under the floor, so unobtrusive cable management that didn’t affect the piping was a must.
In-carpet raceways proved to be the perfect solution to provide power and data accessibility that people couldn’t trip over. The design team created a raceway layout that wove the cabling through and around the aisles of books and down the center of the library. Then, the installation team installed power receptacles under the new study tables.
Visitors no longer needed extension cords to reach an outlet across the room—they simply had to reach under the table.
4. Get Creative in Leased Buildings
Leasing a space in a tenant building makes upgrades difficult. The building owner is likely to frown on tenants drilling holes into the neighbors’ ceilings or trenching in the floor.
CoStar, a leader in commercial real estate research, faced exactly this problem when it needed three training rooms in a building it didn’t own.
Each of the training rooms received a single power circuit and plenty of data cables that were seamlessly integrated into the floor with raceways.
“No one even knew it was there, and they were thrilled because of the money they saved from the core drills and the time they saved in their construction project,” Batchelder says.
5. Preserve Important Architecture
The architecture department at Ohio’s Miami University is housed in a 107-year-old building befitting the future architects who attend classes there.
Its historic architecture and detailed wood paneling inspire the soon-to-be creators of tomorrow’s built environment. However, those important attributes also make it hard to implement upgrades that could change the building’s appearance.
“They didn’t want to risk damaging this old building foundation by trenching into the concrete or core drilling, but they wanted to develop some classrooms for their architecture department that needed power and data,” says Batchelder.
A raceway concealed power and data that originated at the wall, then routed the cables under the desks, where students could plug in easily. This preserved the integrity of the building while making sure the architecture students had everything they needed to learn.
6. Know Your Walls
The Université de Saint-Boniface in Winnipeg, Manitoba, faced a problem similar to the one at Miami University, but with a twist.
The IT classrooms the university was renovating had a radiant heat system installed in the side walls, so the most common raceway approach wasn’t possible.
In the end, the team ended up running power and data perpendicular to the desks, stemming from the back wall. That allowed them to deliver power and data to every desk—a must for IT students—but without having to deal with the side walls.
An under-table wire management system corrals power, LAN and USB capabilities between the raceway and the desktop.
7. Schedule Smarter
The relative ease of installing raceways allows for tighter renovation turnaround times that would never be possible with core drilling and trenching. The shorter project time leads to cost savings and less downtime for the space being renovated, a critical consideration for classrooms and other academic spaces.
One such project at the University of Louisville—renovating a 125-seat auditorium-style classroom with powered furniture and raceways—was scheduled for winter break. The polished concrete and carpeting were already in place, so the ADA-compliant raceways were installed on top of the floor for easy access.
“We ran 24 circuits throughout the complete auditorium and their space was transformed during the holiday break,” says Batchelder. “This was much easier than all of the core drills and cutting of concrete they would have had to do.”
8. Customize to Your Occupants’ Needs
Some projects need special considerations when it comes to design and product specifications. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the four-year federal service academy that overlooks New York’s Hudson River, had special needs unique to its geography and its position as the nation’s premier military school.
The Academy had some extra requirements for a renovation project that installed power connections in 14 classrooms, all of which had vinyl composition tile flooring. The floors regularly withstood the rigors of military boots, salt and snow, and they needed a tough solution for power hookups that could match the sturdiness of the vinyl tiles.
The raceways that were specified can be wiped clean with a damp rag, ensuring that maintenance is quick, easy and affordable for the staff at the 217-year-old academy.
The Cincinnati Children’s Hospital also needed a customized solution. However, in the hospital’s case, the choice of raceways was less about seasonal weather demands and heavy boot traffic and more about the sheer scale needed to outfit its new 445,000-square-foot research tower.
The tower, which is home to more than 1,500 doctors, scientists and staff members, features meeting rooms in a variety of sizes that can seat up to 30 people. Each one uses flat wall-mounted displays, conference phones and touchscreen lighting and video controls.
Every single one requires every kind of connectivity (AV, power, telecommunications and data) and would have required the crew “to core drill everywhere,” explains Michael Rose, interactive services at the hospital.
In-carpet raceways were installed in more than 40 of the AV meeting rooms, allowing the staff to change any cabling in the future by simply removing the cap. The raceways stretch from the wall under the flat-panel displays and end under the conference table. This keeps the receptacle in a central location but out of the walking path so no one can trip on it.
9. Call in the Experts
A designer who knows the products you’re installing is worth their weight in gold when it comes to planning a renovation or a significant upgrade.
Design teams can recommend products that will look and function correctly in each space and develop a plan for placement that keeps the raceways accessible but unobtrusive. They can walk through the entire process with you to make sure you get your renovation right the first time.
One major vacation rental provider knows the value of a good design team. The company has engaged raceway design specialists for four corporate campuses because they’re consistently impressed with how well raceways allow them to manage their power and data cables.
“Our design team is a very integral part of our process,” adds Batchelder.
10. Think About Future Needs
The way you use a space may change in a few years. Organizational growth may mean that you have to fit more desks into an open office. You may find you need to convert a space for a use that’s not even on your radar right now.
McCoy-Rockford, a commercial interiors provider, future-proofed its Rockford Business Interiors office in Austin, TX. During the renovation, the company opted for in-carpet raceways that they can access at any time.
Future retrofits or changes in the company’s cable management practices will be much easier because they won’t have to remove any carpet to access their cables.
In the meantime, McCoy-Rockford is using the raceways to link their Steelcase media:scape collaborative workspaces with the video monitors mounted in wood-paneled walls.
The media:scape stations specified for the renovation and the raceways that bring power, AV and telecom capabilities to each collaboration area serve as an example of the innovative solutions the company specializes in.
The demand for reconfigurable spaces isn’t going away anytime soon. Driven by the increasing presence of millennials and Generation Z in the workplace, the move toward flexible workspaces that can transform throughout the day is creating new opportunities for productivity and collaboration. It also requires an adaptable design approach to match.
Raceways are a simple, yet powerful way to control power, data, AV and telecommunication cables. The unobtrusive technology can contribute to agile workplace design by delivering connectivity wherever you need it, even when you’re reconfiguring the space’s layout.
Flexible design that can support many different uses, work modes and job responsibilities presents a way to maximize your return on investment faster. Convenient connectivity delivered through raceways encourages people to actually use the space.
The occupants of your building are growing your organization, but they can’t do it without the right resources. Raceways may be the solution that delivers those resources right to your occupants’ desks.
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