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The Most Ceiling for the Money
All ceilings are not created equal. Some ceilings emphasize looks. With others, the primary objective is to enhance productivity. For still others, the top priority is durability. And some are so generic that they seem to serve no purpose other than to hide wires and the roof deck.
But the fact is that all ceilings must meet multifaceted needs in a space. When selecting a new ceiling, facility executives should ask questions — lots of them — to understand exactly what they’re shopping for when they call ceiling vendors.
The first questions should be directed to those who use or own the space. Before purchasing a new ceiling, facility executives should thoroughly understand the performance that occupants want from the space.
“Facilities are provided to occupants as a place for them to do work, and the effectiveness of that work process is directly impacted by the decisions that were made in the initial design and in the maintenance of those facilities,” says Ken Roy, senior principal scientist for Armstrong Ceiling Systems.
Roy cites surveys conducted by the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California at Berkeley, which indicate that occupants are generally dissatisfied with the acoustics in closed as well as open plan office environments. The biggest problem is the lack of speech privacy, meaning excessive distractions and inadequate confidentiality. The ceiling plays a major role in the acoustics of a space, so the facility executive should understand the privacy needs of occupants before making decisions about the ceiling system.
Roy says there have been reported cases of high employee turnover because the environment simply was not conducive to the work tasks.
“If you dig deep enough, you start to see these things,” Roy says. “Things that you may not know or usually think about, can really hurt the mission of an office space if value engineering is attempted without considering the full consequences of those decisions. The choice in ceiling panels goes way beyond ‘white side down.’”
Understanding how the building competes with other properties is important too, says Scott Qualls, director of sales for USG’s ceilings division.
“What type of building is it? How does it compete in the marketplace?” he says. “Is it a Class A building with a Class B budget? The interiors reflect that. You can see quite a difference between Class A and Class B interiors.” At the same time, be sure to understand up front what kind of investment the building owner is willing to make, he says.
With that in mind, evaluate what sorts of ceilings are found in comparable or competitive spaces, says Timothy Tu, national sales and marketing manager for Parkland Plastics, a manufacturer of ceiling tiles.
“What does the design space say about the tenant?” Tu says. “It comes down to psychology. The space reflects on the company as a group.”
Another point to consider: If the building is old or in disrepair, it might be in violation of code. Facility executives should determine early whether the remodeling project triggers requirements to bring the building up to new codes that have been passed since the building was first built or last upgraded. For example, does the sprinkler system need any upgrades that could affect the budget?
Finally, understand the overall design of the room. Accoustically, is it meant to be active and boisterous like a restaurant or quiet like a law office? Is the space supposed to foster team activities?
In leased office space, the ceiling grid is installed during initial construction. Ceiling tiles are put up at the last minute. Decisions about which kind of tile will be installed depend on the needs of the tenant and the arrangements with the owner.
“Is the space intended to be a turnkey space? Are they interested in getting the tenant moved in rapidly or giving the tenant a good ceiling?” Qualls says.
If the space is prone to frequent turnover, the owner may be interested only in durable ceilings that meet the basic needs of the tenant with minimal disruption and cost, Qualls says.
Facility executives should also consider how the ceiling might be damaged. Ceilings can be subject to stresses ranging from frequent traffic from cable technicians pulling wires to kids throwing pencils and spit balls. So if a ceiling faces a higher than average potential for damage, a more durable ceiling should be considered.
Along the same lines, consider how likely it is that the ceiling will be exposed to mold-causing moisture, Tu says.
In addition to the potential negative affect on the health of occupants, “mold, mildew and water stains on the ceiling bring down the aesthetics of a room,” Tu says. This is particularly important in commercial kitchens, restrooms, or other areas where sanitation is an issue.
The Search Is On
With performance criteria in mind, facility executives can approach vendors with a laundry list of questions.
The first question to the vendor should be, “What solutions can you provide for the performance that the space is intended to deliver, accoustically or environmentally?” says Anita Snader, environmental sustainability manager for Armstrong.
Next facility executives should be prepared to separate the sales pitch from published information. The buyer should be prepared to do homework, she says. If the manufacturer claims a product has a certain level of durability or meets a given standard, those claims should be backed up by indendent testing.
“Get the proof, the test reports,” Snader says. “Look at the data that validates the claims. And make sure the tests compare apples to apples.”
Claims of durability should be accompanied by impact tests and other procedures that prove it. If the claim is high reflectivity, get the engineering reports and energy studies to ensure the statements are legitimate.
Other durability issues include finding out how prone the product is to mold, mildew and staining. It’s also worth asking whether the ceiling tiles can be cleaned and what methods are used. Those are important questions because they can affect operational costs as well as the longevity of a product, says Tu.
“You may have to spend more money for a durable product, but in the long run you can recoup the costs,” Tu says. “What maintenance crew wants to go in on a regular basis and fix or replace something? If something gets dirty, you want to be able to clean it without affecting its performance. Durability is a huge issue.”
From the productivity perspective, the key area of ceiling performance is acoustics. Roy advises facility executives to pay attention to three points during the initial design of the workspace:
- Aduate sound absorption should be specified for ceiling panels in traditional suspended-ceiling open plan offices. Sounds from one workstation can be reflected by the ceiling into another workstation. These intruding sounds can be distracting and adversely affect productivity.
- Some open plan spaces have done away with traditional suspended ceilings. These exposed-structure spaces also require proper sound absorption overhead in the form of clouds, canopies, baffles or other options. Otherwise, the spaces will suffer from high reverberation.
- An enclosed office might seem like it wouldn’t have any privacy problems. But when the walls of an enclosed office only extend to the ceiling plane, adequate sound attenuation should be specified for the ceiling panels or there will be excessive sound intrusion between offices through the ceiling plenum. That problem can undermine the confidentiality of private conversations in the office.
A range of industry measures is available to let facility executives know just what they’re getting from vendors. By asking about articulation class, for example, facility executives can see how a ceiling system will perform in an open plan office. The noise reduction coefficient indicates how much sound a panel can absorb, while the ceiling attenuation class rating measures the amount of sound that passes through a panel.
One criterion that has become increasingly important is the reflectivity of the ceiling. Using the ceiling to reflect light — either fluorescent light from indirect fixtures or daylight — throughout a space is a major trend in ceiling design.
“You want a ceiling tile that will help reflect light, sort of like a mirror,” Tu says. “Light that isn’t absorbed helps to brighten up the room. And it will help reduce operating cost.”
In many parts of the country, the ceiling’s siesmic performance is an emerging issue as building owners look for ways to protect their investments from natural disasters, Qualls says. In those cases, facility executives will want to ask about the ceiling’s siesmic performance.
No facility executive selects a ceiling system expecting to have trouble with the product. But it’s important to ask about the warranty. Asking questions such as “How long is the warranty?” and “What can voids the warranty?” can prevent grief later on.
Finally, facility executives should be sure to ask about end-of-life solutions when the building undergoes its next upgrade, Snader says. Can the ceiling be recycled or is dumping it in a landfill the only option?
“Recyclability is important,” Snader says, citing the trend toward green buildings. “A lot of products are made from recycled material or are recyclable. As a user, I would feel better about a product if I knew I would never have to trash it.”
Lynn Proctor Windle, a contributing editor for Building Operating Management, is a freelance writer who has written extensively about real estate.