Ceilings are easy to overlook. They don't take as much abuse as the floors and — unless Michelangelo has stopped by — they don't command the attention that walls do. However, advances in technology and materials mean ceilings today can be found in a wider range of styles and provide more functionality than their predecessors.
The traditional white, square, perforated ceiling panels that have characterized commercial ceiling products for decades have served their purpose. That is, they covered up the mechanics, says Jeremy Verstraate, product marketing manager for acoustical ceilings with USG Corporation.
Now, manufacturers are offering panels in a range of shapes and sizes, such as four-by-four or two-by-eight panels, along with less common shapes, like triangles. Some companies also offer panels with patterns and other design details. For example, the newer panels can lie flush with the suspension system. Some forego the perforated surface for a smooth one. These changes give variety, freshen up the space and take away the visible suspension system, Verstraate says.
The expanded variety is a result of improved technology in the machines that manufacture ceiling tiles, says Ron Rice, national sales manager with Hunter Douglas.
To be sure, larger or unusually shaped panels tend to be somewhat higher in price than conventional panels because they cost more to manufacture, Rice notes. However, the cost of the material itself remains about the same, which helps to moderate overall price differences.
Facility managers also will find a wider selection of ceiling colors and patterns. To date, about 90 percent of suspended ceilings in commercial buildings have been white. "That is what the industry stocks and offers at a reasonable price," says Ko Kuperus, senior research and development manager with Hunter Douglas Contract. In addition, any colors that were applied typically would have to be added after installation. That could change the acoustical performance of the ceiling, and introduce additional volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the environment.
Now, building owners can find ceiling panels in which color and patterns are designed and manufactured into the product, Rice says. This offers several advantages over panels that are painted after installation. As a starting point, the amount of coloring agent used in the manufacturing process is much less than the amount needed for on-site paint methods. In addition, no VOCs are introduced into the environment and the range of colors and patterns is greatly expanded. As a result, the percentage of commercial ceilings that feature colors and patterns, while small now, is likely to keep growing.
What's more, the enhanced looks don't stop at the installation. Some manufacturers are offering ceiling systems that can withstand stronger and more frequent cleanings, so that they stay looking good for a longer time, says Robert Marshall, manager of marketing technical services with CertainTeed Ceilings. That makes them particularly well suited for use in cafeterias and health care facilities, as well as in laboratories and clean room applications. For instance, one system can be cleaned daily with either disinfecting chemicals or high-pressure wet washing.
It's not just the aesthetic appeal of ceilings that has improved. Manufacturers also are improving the way ceilings work. One example is a ceiling grid system that can carry low-voltage electrical current, says Susan Rhoades, product manager for Armstrong Building Products. The product is scheduled for commercial availability early in 2010.
With power run through the ceiling grid, lighting changes and moves can be completed without having to rewire entire sections of a building. "The environment is now plug and play," Rhoades says.
The grid system will carry direct current (DC) since many electrical devices, such as LED lighting systems, run on DC power. In addition, alternative energy devices, such as solar panels or fuel cells, produce DC power that can be fed directly into the system.
To be sure, because most commercial facilities' systems will continue to run on AC power, the electric current will need to be converted for the new grid system to use it. This will be accomplished through transformers, typically located in the plenum .
While building owners have used the ceiling plenum to provide power to lighting systems, a growing number are using the plenum to deliver wireless Internet service and power security devices and communication technology, says Rice. The ceiling's "360-degree view of a space" makes it a useful mounting spot for security cameras.
At the same time, the use of ceiling materials that are highly sound-absorbent — such as those with a noise reduction coefficient (NRC) of .80 or higher — has increased, says Marshall of CertainTeed. This is due to increasing acceptance of the postulate that quiet design has a positive effect on humans in just about every genre of space design, including educational, health care and office facilities, he says. While ceilings that offer high sound absorbency have been available for decades, they tend to cost slightly more than other ceiling products. That's changing as acoustic research overwhelmingly supports the concept that the cost is offset by the return, Marshall says.
Many building owners and facility managers also want ceilings that are environmentally sound. As a result, while many ceiling panels have incorporated recycled materials for a while, more manufacturers have begun stating the percentage of recycled content that they're using, says Rice.
Moreover, the changing design of many ceiling panels can boost their energy efficiency. For instance, panels that are more reflective can reduce the number of fixtures needed to adequately light up a space, cutting energy consumption, says Verstraate.
Interest also is growing in products that emit little or no VOCs and that don't contain formaldehyde, Verstraate says. Manufacturers are responding with products such as mineral fiber ceiling panels specifically engineered to emit zero VOCs.
All of these attributes are important for those facilities that are shooting for LEED certification. For instance, LEED for Schools offers credits for indoor air quality and acoustical performance; the ceilings can play a role in enhancing both.
Of course, advances in ceiling technology can benefit all facilities. As more new ceilings are installed, they're likely to begin capturing the same level of attention that floors and walls currently do.
Karen Kroll, a contributing editor for Building Operating Management, is a freelance writer who has written extensively about real estate and facility issues.
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