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Choosing the Right Ceiling

From aesthetics to acoustics, a number of factors can influence ceilings choices. Here's a tip sheet to make sure you get what you want, and need.

It was never true that all ceilings were basically the same, but it may seem like that to facility managers looking back from today’s world, with an expansive array of ceiling options. There are traditional ceilings and open plenums and clouds. Different ceilings have different characteristics related to sustainability and energy efficiency, as well as their acoustics. And, ceilings come in an array of colors, materials, and shapes. Making the right choice is a big deal. After all, as the largest uninterrupted space in any room, ceilings have a vital role to play in the appearance and function of any interior area.

How to pick the right ceiling? Take a big step back and forget for a moment about the ceiling itself. “It’s not just about ceilings, it’s about what you’re doing in the whole space,” says Erin Cooper, a senior interior designer at HDR. A ceiling should fit with “the intent of the space and what the concept is.”

Consider the popular strategy of having no ceiling at all, or a section of panels dropped from the deck for a “cloud” look. “The open look is not going away,” Cooper says. “It allows depth, it defines zones, it can help with wayfinding.” But that doesn’t mean it’s right for every space. For healthcare settings, for instance, rules about cleaning and sanitation often dictate conventional ceilings.

In choosing the ceiling, Cooper says, “You have to consider, how does that space need to perform?”

Solving problems

The semi-industrial look of the high plenum, with exposed ductwork and no ceiling panels, has passed beyond being a fad; it’s here to stay. But “it often creates problems that they didn’t see coming,” says Glen Warwood, marketing manager for Armstrong. The most common problem is noise, as sound bounces off hard surfaces without acoustic material to absorb it. But manufacturers have developed “a lot of different options to bring down the noise,” Warwood says.

Ceilings play a crucial role in acoustics, especially in an open office. Ceiling panels can reduce unwanted noise by absorbing or diffusing sound rather than reflecting it. Building owners and facility managers should pay particular attention to two metrics. One is articulation class, which rates the extent to which a ceiling system will diminish reflected speech between work stations. Systems with an articulation class rating of 150 are considered low performance, while those with ratings above 180 are considered high performance. The highest possible ranking is 250.

The other important metric is noise reduction coefficient (NRC), which indicates how much sound a surface will absorb. The scale runs from 0 to 1. The higher the value, the more sound a surface will absorb.

In a very high space, such as an airport, no ceiling would be able to offer much acoustic help, and in those settings, acoustic wall or joist panels may “absorb sound close to where the sound is,” Warwood says.

Retrofitting acoustic panels on walls or joists is “fast and easy, and also affordable,” Warwood says. “It’s mess-free and it preserves the look that the architect originally intended.”

In the past, new buildings with a trendy open look might have to be retrofitted because of acoustic problems, but that is less common now that the potential problem is known and many solutions are available.

New parameters

Sound was often the main consideration for ceiling selection, but facility managers have also been bringing sustainability and wellness attributes into their purchasing decisions.

“Ceilings offer a huge opportunity for sustainability because of their sheer volume,” says Komal Kotwal, project manager and sustainable design leader for HOK Architects. Beth Ann Christiansen, senior project designer for the firm, agrees. “Nowadays, anything environmentally friendly is a selling feature” for owners, tenants, and employees, she says. “It’s not all about the dollars.”

Within the last 10 years, Cooper says, manufacturers have become more transparent about the materials used in their products, with EPDs (environmental product declarations) and HPDs (health product declarations) for a range of ceiling products.

“Even 10 years ago, it was hard to find VOC information” about ceiling products, says Lindsey Perez, a sustainability principal with DLR Group. But now ceilings, like most building materials, can easily be checked for their lifecycle carbon footprint, from material extraction to the end of life.

At the same time, building owners and facility managers are taking a closer look at details related to sustainability. “They want to know how it’s disposed of, how it’s recycled, and how it’s shipped,” she says. “If it’s a heavy material and it takes more gasoline to get it to the site, that’s a factor.”

Manufacturers have also begun to calculate lifecycle costs for their products. It is now standard to assess the cost of raw materials, manufacturing, distribution, and end of life, in order to calculate the product’s carbon footprint. LEED standards have required that for years, but building owners and facility managers are now proactively asking for environmentally friendly products.

Ceilings can have very long lives. Federal facilities are “are going to be there a long time” without cycling through frequent owners and renovations, Cooper says. In terms of durability, “ceilings are a workhorse,” she says — if a space is being renovated, usually the ceiling is left intact, unless walls are being moved. Anita Snader, environmental sustainability manager for Armstrong, says that her company’s ceilings are designed to last 30 to 75 years, or for the life of the building.

If an old ceiling is being torn out, the work crew needs to know “don’t send it to the landfill, send it back to the manufacturer,” Cooper says.

All requirements of the space should be considered in design — for instance, if a maintenance worker needs access to the space above the ceiling, it should be available by popping out one panel. If the whole ceiling has to be removed, Cooper says, “that’s a mess. Oftentimes that’s not asked, and sometimes the manufacturer won’t tell you.”

Ceilings can have another impact on sustainability: energy savings. Ceiling panels with a high light reflectance value can reduce the need for electric illumination. “Ceilings and lights together have come a long way,” Kotwal says.

Ceilings can also be used for heating and cooling: Radiant ceilings — metal panels that are backed by copper coils which can circulate hot or cold water — can bring significant energy savings, says Snader.

A related area where Perez has seen major changes in attitude is health and wellness in the workplace. When she talks to building owners and tenants, “the impact of everyday products on health changes the conversation more than energy savings,” she says. “If you put it in terms of health, people embrace that more.”

Another emerging trend in wellness, Kotwal says, is biophilic design which emphasizes connections to nature. In healthcare settings, where patients spend a lot of time in bed looking up, “that might mean skylights, or something that alludes to connections with nature, like patterning to look like the sky.” It’s not as obvious as wood grain or green, Christiansen says, but a subtle touch might be a honeycomb pattern.

In commercial and corporate space, “employee well-being is very important,” Christiansen says. “They’re all looking for similar ideas around wellness and sustainability.” And that desire is coming from the bottom up, Christiansen says, with workers seeking a pleasant office environment and employers looking for ways to retain talent.

Getting the right look

Aesthetics is a crucial consideration for ceilings, and a wide range of options makes it possible to achieve the right look for a space. For example, metal panels or wood may be a good choice, depending on “the way people are using the space and how you want them to feel,” Warwood says. Those materials can be used as accents for wayfinding or “a homey, comfortable feeling.”

Dark-colored ceilings still have a place as a design statement, Christiansen says. “It’s the cool factor. The darker you go, the edgier it is, style-wise.” It might not be used over a large expanse of ceiling, but “color doesn’t have to be just on the furniture and the walls.”

Color offers an opportunity to get creative with ceilings, Kotwal says. Although hanging isolated panels from the deck is a trendy look, “floating ceilings can get expensive,” Christiansen says. But in an open space, marking a lounge or a conference area with colors that match the floor is “kind of a fun, cool look.”

In the near to medium future, seamless ceilings, offering a “clean monolithic look” similar to drywall, will be gaining popularity, Warwood says.

Even in spaces that need a conventional ceiling made of two-by-four tiles, the look can be made more interesting by staggering the grid, Cooper says, so that it resembles bricks in a wall.

“Ceilings are a missed opportunity in design,” Cooper says. “It should be a design element from the start, instead of following the design. It ties into what your big idea is.”


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