Title:
Systems and Methods for Modular Building Construction with Integrated Utility Service
Kind Code:
A1


Abstract:
Systems and methods for construction using modular units, such as wall panels, which have integrated utility service. One embodiment comprises a product including a modular construction panel and one or more utility fittings which are integral to the panel. The utility fittings may be for any type of utility service, such as electrical, plumbing, HVAC, computer network, phone or audio/video service. The fittings in the panels may be electrical wires or plumbing conduits. The panels may include connectors (e.g., quick-connect connectors) for coupling the utility fittings which are integral to the panel to service points such as wiring harnesses or water source pipes that are external to the panel and that provide utility service to the utility fittings. The panels may also include connectors for coupling the integral utility fittings to utility fixtures external the panel, such as light switches, electrical outlets, computer network jacks, phone jacks, faucets, drains, etc.



Inventors:
Olvera, Robert E. (Austin, TX, US)
Application Number:
11/927285
Publication Date:
05/08/2008
Filing Date:
10/29/2007
Primary Class:
Other Classes:
52/651.01, 52/782.1
International Classes:
E04H14/00; E04C2/00; E04C2/30
View Patent Images:
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Primary Examiner:
SMITH, MATTHEW J
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
Sprinkle IP Law Group (1301 W. 25th., St. Suite 408, Austin, TX, 78705, US)
Claims:
What is claimed is:

1. A product comprising: a modular construction panel; and one or more utility fittings which are integral to the panel.

2. The product of claim 1, wherein the utility fittings are selected from the group consisting of: electrical wires; and plumbing conduits.

3. The product of claim 1, wherein the utility fittings comprise fittings for a utility service selected from the group consisting of: electrical service; plumbing service; HVAC service; network service; phone service; and audio/video service.

4. The product of claim 1, wherein the utility fittings comprise fittings for two or more different utility services.

5. The product of claim 1, wherein the panel comprises one or more connectors configured to couple the utility fittings integral to the panel to one or more service points that provide utility service to the utility fittings.

6. The product of claim 5, wherein the one or more service points comprise intermediate service points, and wherein each of the intermediate service points is configured to be coupled to a corresponding central service point that provides utility service to the intermediate service point.

7. The product of claim 5, wherein the utility fittings comprise electrical fittings and the service points comprise a wiring harness.

8. The product of claim 5, wherein the utility fittings comprise plumbing fittings and the service points comprise a plumbing manifold.

9. The product of claim 6, wherein the connectors comprise quick-connect fittings.

10. The product of claim 6, wherein the connectors are configured to couple utility fittings which are integral to a first panel to utility fittings which are integral to a second panel.

11. The product of claim 1, wherein the panel comprises one or more quick-connect connectors configured to couple utility fixtures which are external to the panel to the utility fittings which are integral to the panel.

12. The product of claim 1, wherein the panel comprises one or more connectors configured to couple utility fittings within the panel to utility fittings within a different panel.

13. A building system comprising: a service distribution system configured to receive utility service from a point external to a building and to deliver utility service to one or more points internal to the building; a plurality of modular building panels having integral utility fittings; and one or more connectors configured to couple the utility fittings of the building panels to the service distribution system to provide utility service to the utility fittings.

14. The system of claim 13, wherein the utility fittings comprise electrical wiring embedded within the building panels and the service distribution system comprises a wiring harness.

15. The system of claim 14, wherein the utility fittings further comprise one or more electrical fixtures.

16. The system of claim 13, wherein the utility fittings comprise plumbing conduits embedded within the building panels and the service distribution system comprises a water distribution system.

17. The system of claim 16, wherein the utility fittings further comprise one or more plumbing fixtures.

18. The system of claim 13, wherein the connectors comprise quick-connect fittings that are configured to be coupled to the modular building panels and to the service distribution system without tools.

Description:

CROSS-REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATIONS

This application claims the benefit of U.S. Provisional Patent Application 60/864,069, filed Nov. 2, 2006, which is incorporated by reference as if set forth herein in its entirety.

BACKGROUND

1. Field of the Invention

The invention relates generally to systems and methods for construction, and more particularly to systems and methods for constructing buildings using modular units, such as wall panels, which have integrated utility service.

2. Related Art

The invention relates generally to systems and methods for construction, and more particularly to systems and methods for constructing buildings using modular units, such as wall panels, which have integrated utility service.

Methods for building construction, and especially methods for constructing residential buildings have stayed, for the most part, unchanged for many years. This is an industry which is very conventional end which is very slow to change. It is also very difficult to convince people in the industry to accept changes. Traditional construction methods are well known and understood by these people, and they are typically are reluctant to adopt construction methods that represent dramatic changes in the way buildings are constructed.

Traditional residential construction begins with construction of a foundation that incorporates basic plumbing connections (e.g., freshwater, wastewater, gas.) Wood construction is then utilized in the framing of the building. After the wood frame is constructed, exterior walls and roof are attached to the frame. Then, plumbing, electrical wiring and air conditioning/heating systems are installed. Most of the plumbing and electrical wiring are installed within the framed walls and ceiling of the building. A/C ducting may also be installed in the walls and ceiling. Interconnections of the wiring, plumbing and ducting may be made in available attic space or elsewhere in the building. After these trades are completed, the interior walls may be closed (i.e., drywall installed) and the interior is finished out (e.g., electrical fixtures and plumbing fixtures installed.)

These traditional construction methods have various drawbacks. For example, progress in constructing the building is typically very slow. There are several reasons for this. First, the construction must proceed in stages, and some of these stages cannot be begun until others have been completed. For example, it is necessary to complete the framing of the house before plumbing (at least to the portion of the plumbing above the foundation) can be installed. Similarly, electrical wiring and ducting cannot be installed until the framing is completed. Because each of these utilities (water/wastewater, electricity, air conditioning) is installed by different tradespeople (e.g., plumbers, electricians) in the same wall space, it may be difficult to install them at the same time. Consequently, it may be necessary to complete installation of one before beginning installation of another, thus adding to the time required for the construction. Still further, although these tradespeople normally have a construction plan to follow in performing their respective trades, it is typically the case that there are problems in the installation (e.g., plumbing installed at the wrong location) which require the tradespeople to return after their jobs were believed to have been completed, in order to correct the problems. This, of course, adds to the construction time.

Another drawback of traditional wood-frame construction is that lumber is an increasingly scarce resource. It is difficult to renew forests at the rate at which they are harvested to provide lumber for construction. In addition to the obvious environmental concerns this presents, the decreasing supply of wood also leads to increased cost, as the wood becomes more expensive.

As noted above, the construction industry, and particularly people involved in residential construction, have been very slow to accept changes or alternatives to conventional construction methods. The commercial side of the industry, however, has made some use of alternative construction methods, and at least some of these alternative methods are available for residential construction. For example, it is now quite common in commercial buildings to make use of steel framing. Internal walls of commercial buildings often use steel C-channel studs instead of 2×4 wood studs. The use of steel studs for internal framing provides one solution to the problem of dwindling lumber resources, but a lack of familiarity with steel construction has slowed adoption of this construction method in residential applications.

Another advance in construction is the use of prefabricated walls or panels to construct the frame of a building. In large commercial buildings, these prefabricated walls may consist of concrete slabs or panels having preformed door or window openings. Preformed concrete walls are not often found in residential construction. Another type of prefabricated walls consists of structural insulated panels (SIP's.) SIP's typically consist of an outer shell formed using sheet metal and an inner core of insulating foam (e.g., expanded polystyrene.) SIP's sometimes include races (recessed channels) in which electrical wiring can be positioned after the SIP's are installed. SIP's are sometimes used in residential construction but, as with steel-frame construction, a lack of familiarity in the industry has slowed adoption of this construction method.

SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

This disclosure is directed to systems and methods for construction using modular units, such as wall panels, which have integrated utility service, thereby solving one or more of the problems discussed above. One particular embodiment comprises a product including a modular construction panel and one or more utility fittings which are integral to the panel. The utility fittings may be for any type of utility service, such as electrical, plumbing, HVAC, computer network, phone or audio/video service. The fittings in the panels may, for example, be electrical wires or plumbing conduits. The panels may include connectors for coupling the utility fittings which are integral to the panel to service points (such as wiring harnesses or water source pipes) that are external to the panel and that provide utility service to the utility fittings. The panels may also include connectors for coupling the integral utility fittings to utility fixtures external the panel, such as light switches, electrical outlets, computer network jacks, phone jacks, faucets, drains, etc. The panels may also include connectors for coupling the integral utility fittings of one panel to those of another panel. All of these connectors may be quick-connect type connectors.

Another embodiment comprises a building system that includes the panels described above, as well as a service distribution system and connectors configured to connect the utility fittings within the building panels to the service distribution system. The service distribution system receives utility service from a point external to a building and delivers utility service to points internal to the building. The coupling of the service distribution system to the utility fittings within the panels enables the system to provide utility service to the utility fittings, and to utility fixtures which are connected to the fittings.

Numerous other embodiments are also possible.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

Other objects and advantages of the invention may become apparent upon reading the following detailed description and upon reference to the accompanying drawings.

FIG. 1 is a diagram illustrating the interconnection of a central service point to multiple modular panels having integrated utility fittings in accordance with one embodiment.

FIG. 2 is a functional block diagram illustrating the interconnection of a central service point to multiple modular panels in accordance with an alternative embodiment.

FIG. 3 is a diagram illustrating a modular panel having integrated utility fittings in accordance with one embodiment.

FIG. 4 is a diagram illustrating a pair of modular panels having integrated utility fittings in accordance with one embodiment.

While the invention is subject to various modifications and alternative forms, specific embodiments thereof are shown by way of example in the drawings and the accompanying detailed description. It should be understood, however, that the drawings and detailed description are not intended to limit the invention to the particular embodiment which is described. This disclosure is instead intended to cover all modifications, equivalents and alternatives falling within the scope of the present invention as defined by the appended claims.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION

One or more embodiments of the invention are described below. It should be noted that these and any other embodiments described below are exemplary and are intended to be illustrative of the invention rather than limiting.

The present disclosure provides details of systems and methods for building construction that make use of environmentally friendly modular panels which have integrated utilities, such as electrical wiring, plumbing, and the like. Exemplary embodiments include:

    • individual modular building panels that incorporate utilities such as electrical wiring or plumbing;
    • means for connecting the modular building panels to each other and for coupling the utilities that are integrated into the panels to other parts of a utility system; and
    • whole-house building systems that make use of the modular building panels to enable the rapid construction of buildings that have complete and integrated utility systems, such as plumbing, electrical service, wiring for computer networks, telephone systems, audio/video systems, etc.

Referring to FIG. 1, block diagram illustrating the interconnection of a central service point to multiple modular panels having integrated utility fittings is shown. Modular panels 110-112 may be any of a variety of different types of construction panels. For instance, they may be external wall panels, internal wall panels, or ceiling panels. It should be noted that other types of elements (e.g., columns or fir-downs) may also be needed in the construction of a building, and such elements may incorporate the same type of utility fittings as wall panels, and should, for the purposes of this disclosure, be considered alternative types of modular panels.

Each modular panel incorporates integrated utility fittings. As used in this disclosure, “utility fittings” refers to any type of wiring, piping or other material that is used to provide a service (utility) to the building. Typical utilities may include, but are not limited to, electrical service, plumbing, air-conditioning, heating, computer networks, telephone service, audio/video, etc.

As depicted in FIG. 1, each of modular panels 110-112 is connected to a central utility service point 120, or an intermediate service point (130, 131.) In this embodiment, central utility service point 120 receives service from outside the building and serves as a distribution point for the service to the intermediate service points and modular panels.

It should be noted that the modular panels may be connected to each other, in addition to being connected directly to the central utility service point. Some of the modular panels may alternatively be coupled to the central utility service point through other modular panels. Still other connection topologies may also be possible.

Central utility service point 120 may provide both utility service and controls to the different modular panels. For example, a central electrical utility service point may route electricity to a particular modular panel that will provide electricity to an HVAC system, and it may also provide control signals to this panel which will be used to control operation of the HVAC system.

Referring to FIG. 2, a functional block diagram illustrating an alternative embodiment is shown. In this embodiment, the utility service originates within the building, rather than external to the building. For example, the utility service may consist of audio/video (e.g., television) service within the building. The service may originate at central service point 220, or it may originate at one of the modular panels (e.g., 210,) from which it can be distributed to central service point 220 and/or the other modular panels (211, 212.) Although not shown in this figure, internally originated service may be distributed through intermediate service points or via other topologies as described above in connection with externally originated service.

It is contemplated that some of the most useful embodiments of the present invention will consist of modular wall panels that have integrated electrical wiring. Referring to FIG. 3, an exemplary modular panel is shown. In this embodiment, modular panel 310 is a prefabricated wall panel that is configured to be installed within the interior of a house. The panel may, for example, be placed within a lower track 320 and secured to this track and an upper track 321. The tracks may be plumbed (made vertical) and squared as part of the framing process so that no adjustment of the wall panel is necessary during its installation.

The wiring integrated into modular panel 310 is illustrated by dashed lines 330 and 331. Line 330 represents live wires that provide 120 volt, 60 hertz electrical service to a household electrical outlet 340. Thus, electricity is delivered from an external source to central service point 350, and then from the central service point via a wiring harness 360 to the modular panel. Wiring harness 360 has a connector 361 which is designed to be connected to a corresponding connector 311 which is coupled to the end of the wiring within modular panel 310. Suitable connectors are commercially available.

Line 331 represents a set of wires that are connected to a wall switch 341. These wires are not always live, but are used to complete a circuit, such as a circuit to provide power to an overhead light. The wires represented by line 331 are connected to wiring harness 360 through connectors 311 and 361. Wiring harness 360 is designed to connect the wires from light switch 341 to a light in a different modular panel, as well as central service point.350 in order to make a circuit that allows switch 341 to control the light. Thus, modular panel 310 may include wiring that is used for control purposes, as well as simply providing electrical power.

It should be noted that modular panels such as the one shown in FIG. 3 can be constructed to various degrees of completeness. That is, different amounts of finish-out may be needed to complete construction after installation of the modular panel. In one embodiment, the modular panel is constructed with an external surface that is equivalent to drywall, so that is only necessary to paint the panel after it is installed. In this embodiment, the modular wall panel incorporates integrated wiring 330 and 331, but does not include outlet 340 or switch 341. Because the specific fixtures that are desired by particular home owner may not be known, selection and installation of these figures is left for a finish-out stage of construction. In an alternative embodiment, however, these fixtures may be included in that construction of the modular panel. In the embodiment in which the fixtures are not included in the modular panel, the panel may simply provide the terminal end of the wires at the position of the outlet/switch so that the fixtures can be connected conventionally, or the panel may provide modular, quick-connect fittings which allow the fixtures to simply be plugged in instead of requiring tools for installation.

In addition to integrating wiring for electrical service as illustrated in FIG. 3, is contemplated that it will be very useful to integrate plumbing into modular panels. Embodiments which integrate plumbing are very similar to the embodiment of FIG. 3, except that pipes are integrated into the panels instead of wiring. It should be noted that there are commercially available connectors that allow plumbing connections to be made as easily as plugging in the electrical connectors described in connection with FIG. 3. These connectors may be incorporated into the design of the modular panel, both at the point at which the panel is connected to the central service (e.g., water supply or water heater,) and at the point at which fixtures (e.g., faucets) are connected to the integrated plumbing. Again, the level of finish of the modular panel may vary, with the attachment points for the fixtures being provided as stub-outs, or as pipes suitable for use with a plumbing quick-connect fitting.

Referring to FIG. 4, another example of the inventive modular panels is shown. In this embodiment, modular panels 401 and 402 are prefabricated wall panels that are configured to be installed within the interior of a house. The panels are again shown mounted to upper and lower tracks, although this is not characteristic of all embodiments. As shown in FIG. 4, panel 401 includes both electrical service (indicated by the dashed lines) and plumbing service (indicated by the dotted lines.) At the top of the panel, connections are provided to couple the plumbing and wiring within panel 401 to service points that provide the water and electrical service.

Wall panel 402 has integral electrical fittings in the form of wiring 430 and outlet 435. Rather than being coupled directly to an electrical service point, the fittings in panel 402 are connected to the electrical service in panel 401 through coupling 440. Thus, in this example, switch 420 can control outlet 435 in a different wall panel. Although coupling 440 is depicted here as a cable for clarity, alternative connectors, such as direct male-female connectors can be installed in the panels so that they are automatically connected when the panels are mounted next to each other.

It should be noted that, although larger plumbing and ducting may be more difficult to accommodate than smaller utility fittings, such as water supply lines and electrical wiring, it is possible to do so. In one embodiment, the modular panels designed to accommodate smaller fittings may be thinner, while panels incorporating larger fittings (e.g., waste water drain lines) may be thicker, thereby allowing the lines to be integrated into the panels. Also, as noted above, the “panels” may include other architectural elements, such as columns, which can easily accommodate larger fittings (e.g., ducting and larger-diameter pipes.)

The benefits and advantages which may be provided by the present invention have been described above with regard to specific embodiments. These benefits and advantages, and any elements or limitations that may cause them to occur or to become more pronounced are not to be construed as critical, required, or essential features of any or all of the claims. As used herein, the terms “comprises,” “comprising,” or any other variations thereof, are intended to be interpreted as non-exclusively including the elements or limitations which follow those terms. Accordingly, a system, method, or other embodiment that comprises a set of elements is not limited to only those elements, and may include other elements not expressly listed or inherent to the claimed embodiment.

While the present invention has been described with reference to particular embodiments, it should be understood that the embodiments are illustrative and that the scope of the invention is not limited to these embodiments. Many variations, modifications, additions and improvements to the embodiments described above are possible. It is contemplated that these variations, modifications, additions and improvements fall within the scope of the invention as detailed within the following claims.