thank you for all the responses. Sorry about the large images. Sorry also if I'm out of my depth with this. I'm just doing this as a learning exercize.
@bullet, yes that is more or less what i'm trying to create. (thanks for posting the example, it was helpful in getting the vent holes to look right).
So if i extract the face and turn it into a vent, everything is fine, but when i try to re-attatch it is where I run into problems. It looks fine in poly mode, but when I turn on smoothing, it becomes apparent that I'm trying to fit a rectangle into a circular hole. I understand that this is also going to create non-4-sided faces, which is not good.
Does this mean that I'm going to have to create edge loops to line up with all the edges for the vent holes? or...
@jsprogg - you're saying that I might keep the vent as separate geometry? Does that mean the corners of the vent would line up with the rest of the body, but that it would be a separate object? I don't understand how I could get a continuously smooth surface with that method.
poly view mode
attempt to attatch vent to body