Ellina Webb looks at the importance of HVAC infrastructure in large buildings, spaceships and Hollywood action films.

What do Aliens, Die Hard and Mission Impossible all have in common aside from gore, action and heroism?

All these films, and so many more, rely on building ductwork for key characters to stealth their way out of a tricky situation.

Ducting infrastructures have featured in films for the past 30+ years, highlighting not just how important it is to a characters escape route, but also how important ductwork and HVAC systems are to a commercial building (or space ship in the case of Aliens).

In real life however, while ductwork in most buildings wouldn’t be sturdy enough or large enough to accommodate John McClain, it’s still a key aspect of the infrastructure of a large space with a high occupancy level.

HVAC and ducting is important for not only the comfort and indoor air quality of the building, it is an essential part of the infrastructure of most commercial and industrial buildings

Ellina Webb Ellina Webb Senior Marketing Executive

“Now I know how a TV dinner feels”

For those action film fanatics out there, this quote is said by John McClain as he squeezes his way through an intricate and infinite ductwork system leading from the ‘elevator’ shaft (another key Hollywood escape route) of the fictional Nakatomi Plaza. In fact, this moment in film history is one of the most recognised moments of 90s cinema.

Believe it or not, this scene is so famous that some building designers and architects have to assess the risk of someone’s ability to crawl through ductwork when it comes to evaluating a buildings security. The concept is also so curious that it has become the subject of many theoretical articles such as ‘Nakatomi Space’ a label for the Hollywood concept “wherein buildings reveal near-infinite interiors, capable of being traversed through all manner of non-architectural means.”

In real life the actual building where the story takes place is called Fox Plaza which is a 35 story skyscraper in Los Angeles and was the first in Southern California to incorporate a central fresh-air tunnel in which stale air is extracted from all floors. This style of natural stack ventilation uses air pressure differences due to height to pull air through and out of the building. Unfortunately I’m not sure how what the indoor ducting infrastructure of this type of system would look like, but let’s assume its portrayal in the film is as fictional as the story itself.

“Krieger, from this point on... absolute silence!”

Another iconic scene in 90s cinema is that of the Mission Impossible heist where Tom Cruise enters a vault via the air conditioning ductwork, lowers himself down and undertakes one of the most nerve wrecking hacking operations the film franchise has ever seen.

The scene takes place because the CIA building vault that they are entering has understandably high security checks, from voiceprint identification, to a 6 digit code, a retinal scan and an electronic key card; and that only gets them into the vault!

Once inside the vault there are 3 more security systems, the first is sound sensitive, the second is temperature sensitive and the third is pressure sensitive.

The temperature sensitive security system is the most intriguing to me as the temperature is controlled by that famous (laser protected) air conditioning duct and if the temperature in the vault rises by just a single degree the alarm is triggered!

In this scene not only does the air conditioning duct play a massive role in allowing Cruise and Reno’s characters to jeopardise CIA building security, the ducting is also study enough to hold both their weight along with the harness mechanism – another farfetched Hollywood creation.

In real life, while I don’t know what the building infrastructure of the CIA headquarters is like, I think it safe to assume that of all buildings, this one definitely doesn’t have ductwork large enough to crawl through.

However, that doesn’t mean that some buildings don’t, as this article on the University of Kentucky ‘exam heist’ explains. The failed university heist happened when a student allegedly crawled through an air duct and lowered himself into his professor’s office to steal a copy of a final exam.

“Drive it into the airlock and zap it into outer space”

This 90s cinema air duct scene is the one famed in the film Alien. The scene itself takes place not in a building, but in a spaceship called Nostromo which has been taken over by an Alien.

The role of the ductwork in this occasion is to enable the crew to corner the Alien into an airlock, allowing them to launch it out into space. Unfortunately, while the strategy is genius, it has unfortunate consequences for many of the characters – and is extremely frightening to watch.

Air duct systems in the spaceship are extremely important for preserving life on board; in fact fan fiction states that the Nostromo ship’s air ducts supply 1.1 million cubic meters of volume so its no wonder the Alien chose this route.

In real life, HVAC systems in current space vessels are extremely important in maintaining the condition of the inside air, high heat and moisture levels and removing harmful gasses. Of course, unlike in building installations, these systems are extremely complex due to the requirements of adverse conditions that you wouldn’t have to deal with here on earth.

If HVAC in spaceships does interest you, I recommend having a read of this.

Final thoughts

Just to be clear, it’s practically impossible for a ductwork system to be used in this way (I can’t comment on that regarding spaceships, but it’s pretty safe to assume).

HVAC and ducting is important for not only the comfort and indoor air quality of the building, it is an essential part of the infrastructure of most commercial and industrial buildings with high occupancy and process levels. And while most of us in the HVAC/building services industry already know this, I’m glad to see Hollywood has recognised that, even if they’ve added a LARGE twist to the narrative.

Ellina Webb is a Senior Marketing Executive at Mitsubishi Electric