Taking Specialty Ceilings to New Heights

Specialty ceilings deliver aesthetics, but performance benefits can rise above expectations as well

By Lacey Muszynski, Assistant Editor  

Specialty ceilings offer a benefit facility executives might not expect: performance. Some specialty materials can even surpass the performance of traditional grid ceilings in acoustics, light reflectance and accessibility.

Instead of discovering such benefits after installation, facility executives should consider these benefits beforehand so that when it comes time to pick a product, they can strike the right balance between aesthetics and performance.

Degrees of Customization

Specialty ceilings aren’t limited to standard mineral fiber or fiberglass tiles. They can run the gamut from wood to metal to plastic, as well as other more exotic materials. The possibilities for specialty ceilings often seem endless.

To make sense of all the possibilities, specialty ceilings can be divided into several categories, say industry sources.

One type is considered “out-of-the-box” — what you see is what you get. It consists of a standard size grid (usually 2-by-2-foot) with panels of metal, wood, molded gypsum or fabric. It is installed the same way a traditional mineral fiber drop ceiling is installed, and is generally the lowest priced specialty option.

For companies where image is top priority, standard grid options may have too much of a commodity look.

For these spaces, a grid system with custom tile and plank sizes might be an option. These use similar materials to out-of-the-box systems, but use non-standard size planks or panels. This makes the ceiling easy to install, and many facility executives find them a good compromise in terms of aesthetics and price.

If having any sort of visible grid is not an option, there are specialty ceilings that don’t use any grid at all. These include some metal installations, drywall ceilings, some transparent materials and clouds — a section of ceiling material that is suspended in an open plenum environment.

The most extreme category of specialty ceilings is completely custom “one-of-a-kind” designs. Facility executives and architects often work with manufacturers to specify exactly what they want. These typically carry the highest costs of specialty ceilings and sometimes require specialized installers.

The two most common materials for specialty ceilings, wood and metal, are used in all categories. A number of manufacturers offer wood and metal in standard and custom grid sizes and as clouds and other forms.

Wood ceilings come in myriad veneers and finishes. Metal ceilings are also offered in numerous patterns, finishes and colors. Metal tiles are available with a wood-look finish, giving the aesthetics of wood with the performance characteristics of metal. These tiles can be used in areas where wood would not be feasible, such as spas, areas open to the outdoors and other high-humidity locations.

Both wood and metal tiles can be perforated with varying size holes or slots that are about the size of a finger. This allows for the placement of an acoustical backer — usually fiberglass. The number and sizes of the holes or slots depends on the manufacturer and the performance needed from the ceiling.

Perforated metal and wood tiles can beat the acoustical performance of mineral fiber tiles, but don’t match up to fiberglass, says Kim Graaskamp, director of sales and marketing at Hunter Douglas. Perforated and backed wood or metal tiles can generally get a noise reduction coefficient (NRC) of between 65 and 80. Mineral fiber tiles typically top out at NRC 75 and fiberglass starts around NRC 80.

Clouds with perforated metal or wood tiles backed with fiberglass are often used for acoustic reasons above lobbies or reception desks, says Linda Neal, assistant manager for commercial branding and communications at Armstrong. “You only need a small amount of clouds to get excellent acoustic properties.”

In spaces where a high light reflectance (LR) ceiling is important, such as in an open office plan using indirect lighting, a white specialty ceiling will generally provide light reflectance equal to traditional tiles. Options include white powder-coated metal, white molded gypsum and white drywall.

Usually, however, wood ceilings are not specified in areas where light reflectance is extremely important. Wood ceilings generally don’t achieve a rating of LR1, a measure that indicates that 75 percent or more of the light that hits a ceiling tile gets bounced back into the space, says Graaskamp. This is important to save energy on lighting costs. White-colored metal can achieve LR1, as can other white ceilings.

Clouds with a highly reflective surface are important in a space where light reflectance is desired along with the open plenum look, says Neal. The clouds can give the space the reflectance, energy savings and design desired.

Balancing Act

Facility executives might specify specialty ceilings for a number of aesthetic reasons. The organization might want to portray a brand, define a specific area within a space, create a unique design element and focal point, or reinforce an already exotic interior.

Facility executives often have to weigh these design benefits with the budget. “They have to cater to the champagne tastes of the architect, but on a lower beer budget,” says Graaskamp.

Some manufacturers are designing specialty ceiling products to get around this difficulty, combining materials in new ways to achieve a specialty or exotic look for a lower price. For example, some manufacturers offer out-of-the-box cloud packages, and at least one manufacturer offers out-of-the-box drywall system components, such as vaults and domes, that can be combined on site for a more flexible, custom look.

When it comes to staying within budget, it’s important for facility executives to look at the big picture, not just the higher cost per square foot over traditional ceilings. “One of the things facility executives want to think about is the value of the ceiling in terms of aesthetics,” says Scott Qualls, director of product marketing — ceilings at USG.

“And then look at the total dollars being spent on a specialty ceiling. Because they usually don’t go through an entire facility, the price for the aesthetic impact is usually worth it.”

In some facilities, specialty ceilings are more than just aesthetic accents. “In health care, specialty ceilings are part of the overall healing design,” says Neal. “Health care tends to use warmer interior finishes, contributing to the feel of the space and ambiance.” For this reason, wood and other organic and supple materials are used to contribute to patients’ well being.

The same is true for universities. A growing number are installing rich wood ceilings in public areas. The idea is to convey to prospective students and their parents a sense of warmth, wealth, security and educational prowess. A similar goal leads facility executives to install warm wood ceilings in C-suites.

In the long run, the increasing desire for custom-look ceilings may lower specialty ceiling costs. A growing trend towards collaboration of the architect, facility executive and manufacturer is resulting in more creative standard products, says Qualls. “These collaborations can lead to innovations which can become standard products down the line,” he says. “If the designer and facility executive have a desire to make a strong statement with their facilities, they have a great opportunity to find something that’s not in the market. Some manufacturers welcome these challenges as part of the new product innovation process.”

Facility executives, architects and interior designers are always looking for something fresh. “It seems to me that anything that is new and different from an aesthetic point of view is trendy right now,” says Joerg Hutmacher, business unit manager at pinta acoustic.

Facility executives should also explore upgrading the ceiling in an existing space in order to upgrade employee productivity and public perception. “Employees will feel like they’re being cared for by the company,” says Graaskamp. “Facility executives don’t have to use the same old stuff they’ve always used. You can change the environment in a space without breaking the bank.”

Accessibility Matters

Gaining access to building infrastructure above any type of ceiling is something facility executives should consider. This is especially true for specialty ceilings. Some are easily accessible; others are a challenge that might require more than one person and some advance planning.

If accessibility is only required once or twice a year, most specialty ceilings will work. But if the ceiling is being installed in an area where access is needed on a regular basis — one to two times per month, for example — then a ceiling that can stand up to a fair amount of handling is recommended. This usually includes most grid systems with metal or wood, and sometimes clouds, because access can be achieved by simply working around the cloud in many cases. It’s also important to keep in mind that specialty ceilings often come with a higher price tag, and the more access needed, the higher the possibility of damaging the system.

Some ceilings may require specialized tools for access to the plenum. This adds a complication that needs to be examined before a facility executive makes a ceiling decision.

Most specialty ceilings don’t require any more maintenance or cleaning than a traditional mineral fiber tile ceiling, even with exotic materials.

Wood tiles may require a simple dusting from time to time. Most wood tiles are stained and some are available with protective coatings. Occasionally, termites can be a concern with wood ceilings if an infestation is found in other parts of the building. Because the wood itself is relatively thin in a ceiling, termites aren’t often a problem.

Facility executives also should examine the space where wood is being considered. Wood can get easily scratched if the plenum is accessed on a regular basis, and whole tiles may have to be replaced if scratched. Another consideration is the environment. Wood cannot be placed in spaces that are too humid or too dry or that experience major fluctuations in temperature and humidity. Schools that do not run an air conditioner during hot, humid summer months, for example, are not a good location for wood ceilings.

Metal, like wood, can simply be dusted or vacuumed. If grime appears, most metal finishes can stand up to a mild detergent and the dirt can be wiped right off. With metal or other types of light-colored ceilings, it’s also important to pay close attention to the areas around HVAC outlets, says Hutmacher. The space around the vents can become dirty and discolored if not cleaned regularly.

Cleaning other types of specialty ceilings is dependent on the material. Fabric and the tops of clouds can be vacuumed, plastics can generally be cleaned with a mild detergent and drywall can be treated like walls. Manufacturers will provide cleaning parameters for specific materials.

Grid-hiding, Green Highlight New Designs

Like any other design element, specialty ceilings go through trends. These tend to rotate on a five or six year cycle.

Presently, there is a move away from exposed grids. Some feel it automatically portrays a commodity look and want to avoid that in high-end spaces, says Joerg Hutmacher, business unit manager at pinta acoustic. Some manufacturers are making grid and tile systems where the tile covers the grid.

“In existing high end spaces where accessibility is important, facility executives can use grid-hiding ceiling panels in plank and custom sizes,” says Linda Neal, assistant manager for commercial branding and communication at Armstrong. “You can utilize the existing grid and hide it at the same time. It’s a practical and cost-effective choice for facility executives looking to upgrade their space.”

Perhaps the largest trend in specialty ceilings right now is also the biggest issue in the industry: green. Just as traditional mineral fiber tile manufacturers are producing low- and no-VOC tiles and formaldehyde-free options, so are specialty ceiling manufacturers looking into those options.

“Seven years ago, I was lucky if one out of every 10 architects said anything about green,” says Kim Graaskamp, director of sales and marketing at Hunter Douglas. “Now, probably nine out of 10 ask about green. It’s going to be important for manufacturers to understand that facility executives want more green in their space and feel good about ceilings that last longer, won’t off-gas, won’t grow mildew or mold, and have a high light reflectance.”

One type of specialty ceiling, metal, has always been ahead of the green trend. Some manufacturers use recycled content to produce metal ceilings — up to 75 percent. Most metal ceilings are also completely recyclable and can simply be disposed of in a public or commercial recycling facility.

— Lacey Muszynski

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  posted on 7/1/2007   Article Use Policy

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