Connections +

Installation – Handle With Care

Installing new structured cabling systems in older or historical buildings requires preparation and attention to detail. A good dose of patience doesn't hurt either.

March 1, 2000  

Print this page

Planning, planning and more planning. This seems to be the advice many structured cabling experts offer when the issue of installing cable systems in older and historical buildings is mentioned.

For David Loughran, pre-design is important to any cable installation, but when an older structure is involved, it is vital to its success.

“You have to understand that a lot more time is needed in the initial design than in a typical building,” says the VP of Projects at IntegCom, a Toronto-based communications consulting and electrical engineering firm that designs structured cabling systems. “If you don’t do that you will experience way too many headaches during the implementation stage of the project.”

These are headaches that only add to the already difficult job of installing network and communication systems containing today’s ever-expanding technology.

“You have to have patience, a little more conscience and really look at labour costs,” says Dennis Wade, marketing manager for AMP Netconnect, a division of Tyco Electronics, Markham, ON. “As far as costs, installers have to look at how are they going to get to where they want to go and how are they going to do it without damaging it. It takes a little more design because you don’t have an open building where you can run in there and place raceway.”

Erring on the side of caution seems to be the smartest course of action in these installations, as damage inflicted on the existing structure in any way — to the floors, ceilings or walls, both inside and out — is irreversible. For a heritage-protected building, installers must display even greater care because an entire set of special guidelines has to be followed.


The importance of planning was quite evident in the recent cabling installation at the historic Upper Canada College (UCC) in Toronto, an independent school for boys. Ehvert Technology Services, Toronto, designed the structured cabling systems, internetworking equipment and servers for UCC’s messaging, security systems and firewall, and coordinated the supply of required hardware and software.

Design began in May of 1999; installation began in June and was eventually completed three months later. Once on site, the first two concerns for contractors were the age of the building and the limited ceiling space. Installers then had to identify points in the building to install pathways. In this case it was conduit, which is piping used to distribute cabling throughout the building so it is protected.

“There were no existing pathways,” says Bill Vanderlans, Ehvert’s infrastructure specialist who designed and coordinated the contractor work at UCC. “The trouble with older buildings is that they don’t normally have rooms stacked on top of each other. They don’t have a central riser, nor do they have accessible ceilings.”

Closets were eventually stacked in the UCC clock tower, so that when cables ran from floor to floor, they then branched off. There was also a very small amount of ceiling space to work with — approximately six inches — which is unlike the buildings of today which have large return air plenums.

“In heritage sites, there are many places where you can’t core drill and you have to watch where the cables go,” says Kirby Peters, an Ehvert senior associate.

“If it’s a building not protected by the heritage foundation,” adds Vanderlans, “you still have to be careful because you are talking about walls 12 to 18 inches thick, limited ceiling spaces and you can’t get from one floor to another.”

To date, UCC’s cabling systems are running fine, according to Peters, who says it is a huge improvement from the old system, and “provides UCC with the infrastructure to support today’s computer technology and dependence on the Internet.”


Although damaging the existing structure in any way is the main concern in older buildings, there are still several ways in which an installation can be performed. Wade suggests that if installers cannot get into the wall without damaging it, they can proceed with a surface raceway.

As for floors, Wade offers a trick of the trade: “Where we have had our most success is under the carpet. We manufacture an under carpet system that is a flat wire with access to data and telephone,” referring to an installation his company recently performed in the Alberta Court House in Edmonton.

Wherever there is an outlet, installers run the flat wire above the concrete and below the carpet. It is aesthetically pleasing and does not cause any harm to the structure.

Internally, many of these structures contain large, high, opened ceilings for display, so there is no visual location to install communications cable. This prevents the running of cables from a data centre to the end user, which ultimately means volume, as 100 users may require a larger supply of cables routed through a sensitive architecture environment.

Typically, in newer buildings there are drop ceilings and conduit, so finding areas to run cables is much easier. The following are some key points to remember when installing cabling systems in older buildings:

Walk hand in hand with the electrical engineer and the interior designer to come up with the best solution.

Creative thinking by the designer and contractor is necessary in order to distribute cables properly and safely.

When possible, work through the floor or ceiling (as opposed to the walls).

Work with trades people and people familiar with the particular site to discover its intricacies

Try to find closet space on each floor; you might have to create closet space with cabinets, which means finding niches to put them in.

Carry a lot of tools. Although installers may be restricted to what they can drill, certain floors, walls and ceilings need special drills.

Every single outlet in older buildings may also have to be individually designed, as opposed to newer buildings, which are more generic and follow a cookie cutter approach.

Ultimately, there is no standard method of installation in older structures. Each building has its own unique challenges, and those involved have to creatively adjust their processes to suit that particular site.


This was certainly true of a recent structured cabling project undertaken by Mosaid Technologies Inc., a Kanata, Ontario-based manufacturer of memory engineering test systems.

The company needed additional space to sustain rapid personnel growth and decided to build a new state-of-the art facility. In addition, Mosaid decided to link its new structure to a stone heritage building called the Monk House — a stone home that once belonged to a co-founder of Monk Rural Telephone, the area’s first technology company.

It was not an easy task to undertake, but it was one that Paul McDow looked forward to.

“There is always a way to do it,” says McDow, Manager of ComSignal Technologies Inc., the company that planned, designed and coordinated the installation of the new cabling system. “There is always a way to find a route. You have to be prepared to take the time and to explore every possibility.”

The company’s new 77,000 square-foot facility was outfitted with a structured wiring plant with approximately 1,300 AMP NetConnect Enhanced Category 5 cables, 417 cable drops and a 12-strand fiber backbone.

Each of the installed 417 cable locations contains three coloured Category 5e cables. This offers Mosaid the ease and flexibility to interconnect any needed service to any given point. It also allows the company to relocate personnel or reconfigure its networking communications.

The new facility is connected to the Monk House through a fiber optic connection running from the main computer room to a service room in the heritage site.

The Monk House was transformed into office space, boardrooms and a leisure room. Installers worked very closely with the general contractor who informed them about several trap doors in the building. This enabled them to enter through the basement, come up a chase beside the duct system and enter into the attic of each of the building’s three f

One unique obstacle during installation was the fact that the building contained triple dry walled walls and 12-inch wood panelling along the floors. But installers were given a break, and Heritage Canada allowed the historical site to renovate its hardwood floors. For McDow, this was key.

“By redoing the hardwood floors it allowed us access routes. This meant the flooring joyce was left open, he says. “It allowed us to do cabling through these exiting joyces.”

Renovations also enabled installers to hide all cabling, which avoided the costs associated with tearing up floors and ceilings.


Another interesting cabling installation of an older building recently occurred south of the border in Philadelphia, PA. More specifically, it was a Category 6 installation (voice and data) in one of the largest tort law firms in the country, Beasley, Casey and Erbstein.

After applying and eventually receiving permission from the Pennsylvania historical agency, the first on-site aspect of the job was to see how the pathways were to be fed.

“In an old building, built long before the concept of the telephone, we had to find out what the load of the building was, what it could stand and come up with where we were going to run our risers,” says Tracy Wright, senior design engineer at Brassell Company.

The next step was to install sleeves and the necessary hardware in the building so wire and fiber optics could travel from floor to floor.

“This was all occupied space, which it made it even tougher,” adds Wright who received specific instructions not to interfere with the daily routines of the buildings’ occupants. “They, and their networks, couldn’t be disturbed.”

Wright says there were several instances of point of failure, mainly due to the building’s wood panelling, which was over a century old. And, because the building was designated a historical site, holes could not be drilled and panelling could not be removed.

Installers had to find ways to install jack locations without harming the interior walls. Fish lines, with 10- to 30-foot poles on either end of them, had to be employed, while workers simultaneously listened to the sound of wires creeping over the top of the ceiling. On several occasions, it took six hours to fish one line to where it was intended to go.

Although the contractors working on the Beasley Building were all certified and professional cable installers, another obstacle facing them was the fact that it was their first installation of Category 6 cable.

Category 6 does possess great bandwidth, but is a lot more sensitive than other cables. Installers had to be very careful with how it was terminated and how it ran down the wall so as not to damage it in any way.

In the end, the entire installation took approximately four months — a long time for a building with only 500 users, says Wright.

Before laying wire and deciding where to situate risers and cabinets, Wright recommends installers walk into the particular building and just observe its construction.

“Throw away everything you have ever learned and think out of the box,” she adds. “Think of it as a challenge. Being very careful and taking it slow and steady is the key, because trying to whip through (an installation) is not the case in these situations.”

McDow of ComSignal agrees, adding that in addition to patience and a little more planning, installers should display a lot of creativity when working in older buildings.

And for Ehvert’s Vanderlans, the key to wiring older buildings is showing some respect: “You should have a sense of history,” he says. “You are not just working in a glass and steel building, you are working in something that has been around for 100 years — treat it gently.”CS

Paul Grossinger is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

Print this page