Ceiling Choice Calls for Homework

Ceiling tiles can affect everything from worker satisfaction to energy costs. Identifying the best option means studying both products and the needs of the space

The ceiling can be described as a skin covering the piping, ductwork, and electrical and communications conduits that keep systems on each floor functioning efficiently. But that description, although accurate, is narrow. To occupants of a space, and to facility executives interested in the performance of a facility, the ceiling is far more than an overhead closet concealing important elements of building infrastructure.

“Facility executives must realize that ceilings contribute significantly to the acoustical, as well as the aesthetic, environment of a space,” says Joann Davis Brayman, vice president of marketing, Armstrong Commercial Ceilings.

Because ceilings serve so many functions beyond aesthetics, selecting the correct ceiling for a space can be challenging. Experts suggest upfront due diligence can eliminate many potential problems several years down the road.

“Architects will make sure the ceiling is aesthetically pleasing,” says Mark Kemerling, product marketing manager, ceiling panels, for USG. “But after you acquire the keys to the building, what issues will you face two or three years down the road?”

Facility executives who have a good understanding of the specific application can minimize life-cycle costs. “If the ceiling tile does not solve a problem or is a cause of maintenance, replacement is inevitable sooner rather than later,” says Timothy Tu, national sales and marketing manager for Parkland Plastics. “Replacement is costly and maintenance is time-consuming.”

When it comes to evaluating how well a given ceiling tile will perform in a specific space, facility executives should start with a close look at the basics. “Ceilings have three basic deliverables,” says Kim Graaskamp, director of sales and marketing for Hunter Douglas Architectural Products. “Acoustics, or sound control, light reflectance, or the ability to bounce light off the ceiling, and access into the plenum. All are vital to the good design of a space.”

Facility executives who pay attention to those three areas are well on the way to a ceiling that will meet the long-term needs of the space.

Hear no evil

Perhaps the most important function of a ceiling is its ability to improve the acoustical environment of a space. Office employees often report the intrusion of unwanted noise as one of the leading sources of workplace dissatisfaction.

“Over the years, study after study has measured employees’ satisfaction with their workplace environment,” Brayman says. “The results have continued to point to disruptive noise and lack of speech privacy as a major cause of reduced employee concentration and work output, higher stress and declining job satisfaction. In addition, overheard conversations can lead to unintentional confidentiality breaches in sensitive work areas.”

Manufacturers offer ceiling tiles that perform a variety of acoustical functions. “They can be absorptive with a high noise reduction coefficient (NRC), can control the transfer of sound from one room to the next, or can reflect sound for a lively space, as in bars and restaurants,” says Graaskamp.

This range of choices means that facility executives should be able to match a specific kind of tile to the needs of a given space.

“From a speech privacy point of view, there is a significant difference between the ceiling requirements in a closed space, such as a conference room or doctor’s office, and in an open space, such as a reception area or open office plan with cubicles,” says Brayman. “As a result, different areas within a facility usually require different acoustical ceilings. The use of the same acoustical ceiling throughout the entire facility is not always the best choice.”

It is currently fashionable to eliminate the suspended ceiling in some spaces, revealing the slab and piping. Although those spaces can be visually striking, they can also be acoustically uncomfortable. Sometimes, steps are taken to address acoustical issues in these spaces. For example, manufacturers offer ceiling systems designed to “float” in open-plenum areas. They add a design accent while helping to mitigate acoustical problems.

Too often, however, nothing is done to replace the absorption lost as a result of the decision to eliminate the suspended ceiling.

“The suspended ceiling is a critical element of the overall acoustical design and provides a significant level of absorption to the space,” says Niklas Moeller, vice president, Logison Acoustic Network. “This absorption reduces overall noise levels and lowers reverberation, creating a more comfortable and productive working environment.”

It’s important for facility executives to understand the importance of the ceiling tile’s ability to absorb sound. Facility executives sometimes downplay the importance of higher levels of absorption, under the incorrect assumption that there is little value in investing in a higher NRC tile, says Moeller.

Energy savings

Careful selection of ceiling tiles may improve the energy efficiency of the system providing lighting for the space below. Ceiling systems reflect light, and high light-reflectance tiles can help facility executives get more light for the energy dollar.

Considering light reflectance for energy savings is becoming more popular. “The idea is to bring in as much light as possible during the day and then to bounce that light around so you need fewer lumens, less energy,” says Mark Kemerling, product marketing manager, ceiling panels, USG. “But you don’t have to go with the highest light reflectance to achieve that savings.”

The lighting design of a given space determines the importance of high light-reflectance. “The benefits are most significant with indirect lighting systems because the ceiling is such an integral part of the lighting distribution system,” Brayman says. “For example, in addition to increased light levels, fewer fixtures may be needed to obtain a given illumination level. Fewer fixtures mean less energy is required to power them, as well as lower maintenance costs since there are fewer lamps and ballasts to replace.”

Daylighting designs also benefit from high light-reflectance ceilings. The use of daylighting is becoming more widespread, in part as a result of studies that suggest natural light can help improve worker performance. “High light-reflectance ceilings can ‘extend’ daylighting into a space,” Brayman says.

On the job performance

Although the ceiling may appear to be isolated from the sources of wear and tear that affect other elements of the building, ceiling tiles must be able to handle various forms of abuse.

“You need to be careful that a less expensive option does not become more expensive,” says Jonathan Leonard, vice president of Lencore Acoustics Corp. “If you cut corners on durability, for example, you will have increased maintenance costs and when those panels are being replaced you also will lose productivity in the space.”

When it comes to ceiling performance, one important issue for buildings with seasonal use, like schools, is humidity control. Although some ceiling tiles are designed to handle higher levels of humidity, facility executives can be inviting trouble when they neglect the impact of humidity on a ceiling system.

“It seems like a great idea to shut everything off when school isn’t in session, but it’s really not a good thing,” says Kemerling. “Heat and humidity build up in the enclosed space during the hot summer months. Then, when the school is reopened and conditioned in the fall, the ceiling panels are bowed.”

Kemerling says he has also seen cases where the ceiling plenum is used as the return air plenum, in lieu of ductwork. What happens is that the ceiling tiles begin collecting moisture.

“The panels absorb that excess humidity and curl up like potato chips,” he says.

Understanding costs

The final decision about a ceiling system must balance performance and aesthetics with cost. Initial cost is important, of course, but facility executives should keep an eye on the long term as well.

Trade-offs are inevitable. A facility executive at one large building chose an unconventional ceiling panel that was trendy and aesthetically pleasing.

“Now, when they need a replacement panel, it has to be specially ordered and takes six weeks,” Kemerling says. One way to control costs over the life of a ceiling is to stick to standard ceiling panel module sizes (2-by-2-feet or 2-by-4-feet dimensions) and select from standard styles.

“Making sure the product is available from different manufacturers also helps in competitive situations,” he says.

Clearly, the ceiling system choice must reflect both the needs of the space and the expected life of the ceiling.

“We had one owner tell us he planned to own the building for 15 years, so he wanted everything to last 16,” Kemerling says.

Whatever the time frame, it’s important that facility executives not be penny-wise and pound-foolish.

“Often, facility executives will use the quickest and cheapest answer to complete their ceiling project,” says Tu. “Typical ceiling tiles stocked in home improvement centers or sold through their distributor warehouses are convenient but not necessarily the best solution. Consider the frequency of ceiling tile replacement, facility downtime as a result of replacement, and the cost of labor for installation.”

To reduce problems and costs over the life of the ceiling, facility executives should stay involved during the entire design, specification, construction and installation process. Graaskamp suggests facility executives not allow substitutions simply for cost reasons as such decisions may cause performance problems later.

Along with cost, performance and aesthetic issues, facility executives should be aware that intangible matters can also be important.

“When evaluating new products, investigate the company that made them, what technologies are involved and who else endorses them either by testimony or recommendation,” says Tu. “In addition, sales representatives should provide service, so challenge them for satisfaction guarantees and product warranties.”

To determine the best long-term value, facility executives should focus on performance specifications, says Leonard.

“You can get lost in the technical data,” he says. “Know what you expect of the ceiling in terms of acoustics, light reflectance, durability and so on. If you choose a ceiling system that meets your performance criteria, everything else should follow.”

Rita Tatum, a contributing editor for Building Operating Management, has more than 25 years of experience covering facility design and technology.

Sound Masking Systems: Weighing Costs and Benefits

The ceiling has a partner in achieving acceptable acoustics in a space: Sound-masking systems, which produce a constant, non-intrusive background sound distributed evenly through a space, are designed to help conceal such distracting noises as nearby conversations. Acousticians consider them essential to achieving a reasonable level of acoustical privacy.

“You don’t want to make a space too quiet or too loud,” says Jonathan Leonard, vice president of Lencore Acoustics Corp. “Think of a beach. There’s a high level of activity in the background and random sounds like the tides lapping on the beach. The beach is an acoustically comfortable place, because the sounds are random. When sounds are not random, such as conversations or even HVAC noise, the brain picks up patterns.”

Although acoustic experts understand the concept of sound masking, facility executives often don’t.

“Many times facility executives get concerned about spending an extra $1.50 a square foot because they don’t understand the importance of noise absorption and blocking, or how sound masking helps the space,” says Leonard.

Although the installation of a sound-masking system does add cost to a project, the use of sound masking may enable the facility executive to reduce other construction costs, says Niklas Moeller, vice president of Logison Acoustic Network. Planning early is important.

“Early incorporation of sound masking in a project can reduce costs, eliminating the need for extra insulation or layers of drywall, plenum barriers and high-spec or permanent walls around private offices,” says Moeller. “Fewer slab-to-slab walls mean reduced HVAC zone requirements and a less interrupted ceiling grid. In this way, masking also maintains the flexibility of the office space for future renovations and changes. In open plan spaces, masking can also maintain a level of acoustical control if density increases and workstation partitions become lower.”

Moeller advises facility executives to pay attention to the life-cycle cost of a system. “The total cost is not just the purchase price, but also the cost of future changes to the system,” he says. “As the facility changes, the masking system should also be adjusted to reflect new conditions. The easier and less expensive it is to address future changes, the better.”

When considering the cost of sound masking, facility executives should weigh it against the benefits of improved acoustics, say manufacturers.

“Workplace surveys continually rank noise issues and speech privacy near the top of employees’ list of concerns,” says Moeller. “Yet while employees represent the overwhelming majority of a company’s costs, those involved in facility design often downplay acoustics in the name of cost savings or aesthetic concerns. What’s clear is that, in the long run, small improvements in employee output, morale and retention easily and quickly justify even large investments in the physical workspace.”

Leonard agrees. “Whenever you compare construction costs to people costs, you find that any additional productivity you can get out of that space will pay for any added acoustical costs within months.”

—Rita Tatum

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  posted on 9/1/2006   Article Use Policy

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