Project team members offer their thoughts on the customized metal ceilings used for a corporate headquarters building.

As a leading international insurance company, Swiss Re is in the business of managing risk. Selecting new ceilings for its new Armonk, N.Y., headquarters meant adhering to the company's policy of strict performance, maintainability, economy and aesthetics. The safe, conventional decision would have been to specify a standard lay-in acoustical panel system. But after reviewing options, Swiss Re decided to underwrite the use of metal ceilings throughout its 250,000-square-foot building.

The Swiss Re project is one of the largest office building installations of metal ceilings in the country. While the decision to use a metal ceiling grew out of the project's unique program requirements and design solution, it also reflects a growing trend among designers to make more creative use of metal ceilings. The innovative ceiling was also made possible by recent advances in metal forming and CAD/CAM technology, which make it more affordable to custom fabricate sophisticated metal panels. A 30-inch ceiling module was selected to accommodate the building's 25-foot column centers and relate to the scale of its large open-plan spaces. The project includes both flat and curved perforated metal panels and custom fabricated trim around perimeters, lighting and penetrations.

To achieve the quality and performance Swiss Re required, the ceiling required close cooperation and attention to detail on the part of all members of the project team. In the discussion below, assembled from separate interviews, key members of the project team describe the ceiling and how it contributed to the project's success. Project team members include:

John Lord, project manager, and Kieran Higgins, superintendent, Component Assembly Systems Inc.-installers.

Nancy Mercolino, president, Ceilings Plus-ceiling fabricators.

Bill Torrens, owner's representative, RWG Associates (US) Inc.

Don Williams, project manager and architect, Perkins and Will/Iu & Associates-designers.

Architectural requirements

Williams: Swiss Re America as a company is moving away from a traditional office environment; its new building has virtually no private offices. It is an entirely open-office landscape designed to encourage teaming and flexibility. The design called for an 80-foot-wide linear building in which one is never more than 40 feet from a window.

Torrens: Each of the building's wings is a large, open room of about 13,000 square feet. These rooms contain large expanses that are interrupted by just two columns from front to back. We have 11-foot-high ceilings for the most part, and the center bay is curved upward to the height of 12 feet 8 inches. This really makes for a spectacular space. Because it is all open plan, the space relies on the furniture and the ceiling to make a design statement.

Williams: The ceiling became one of the primary design elements of the space. We didn't want to lose the opportunity to create a special place by going to a traditional lay-in ceiling. The ceiling also had to meet the owner's acoustical, maintenance, light-reflectance and plenum-accessibility criteria. As the project evolved, we researched a number of different ceiling systems and looked at how the mechanical, electrical, sprinkler and structural systems would work with each ceiling assembly.

Mercolino: Ceilings Plus began working with the Swiss Re and its architects more than a year before construction began to develop the ceiling concept. We built several mock-ups for them to examine and to refine the proposed details.

Metal ceilings

Williams: One of the elements that enabled us to pursue this course was the owner's buy-in to the concept of metal ceilings.

Torrens: Metal ceilings are not common in the United States. But in Europe, they are very common. The owner is Swiss-based and the home offices in Zurich have metal ceilings.

Mercolino: We see increasing interest in metal ceilings among designers and builders in the U.S. Besides offices, metal ceilings are being used in commercial buildings, passenger terminals, theaters, museums and a wide variety of buildings.


Williams: The building's image is very clean and precise and the metal ceiling fits well with it. I'm reluctant to use the phrase "highly engineered," but it fits a Swiss company. Anybody who is in this business knows that the simpler and cleaner something looks, the more complex it really is. I don't mean that the ceiling system is difficult to use, but rather that it has the ability to accommodate many different construction conditions and still look very elegant.

Higgins: Mechanical systems can be worked into a metal ceiling so you don't even know they're there. If you are in an office with a mineral-fiber ceiling, look up at all the metal pieces in it-grid, air diffusers, lights and trim. It can be a real clutter. In a metal ceiling, you can incorporate those metal pieces into the perforated metal panels or panel perimeters. For example, Ceilings Plus did a very clever air diffuser detail for Swiss Re, and extensive testing and a lot of mock-ups to get the performance and appearance required. I don't know if it would have been possible with a mineral-fiber ceiling.


Williams: The ceiling panels are 30 inches wide. Since the building is set up on 25-foot and 30-foot structural bays, the 30-inch ceiling module enabled us to match a 5-foot building grid. Because the open plan spaces are on a grand scale, 30-inch panels were an optimum fit; smaller panels would have looked too busy and bigger panels had structural limitations.

Using 30-inch ceiling panels instead of conventional 24-inch acoustical material enabled us to reduce the overall number of pieces that we had to use, simplifying installation and reducing costs.

Mercolino: We can fabricate curved panels as large as 30 inches by 7 feet 6 inches. Because they are curved, and due to the way their edges are formed, curved Radians panels are uniformly flat surfaces without visual distortions. And they are amazingly strong even though they are made out of lightweight perforated aluminum.


Williams: There is some controversy over the acoustic performance of metal ceilings. But we had it investigated and by supplementing it with Freudenberg mat backing, mineral-fiber insulation and a sound masking system, we have achieved a very good acoustical environment. I've walked through the spaces and have been impressed with the way the sound is damped-more so than one would think from a "hard surface" ceiling.

Lord: This ceiling system is amazing stuff! The perforated metal system gives higher noise reduction coefficients than 1 inch of Fiberglas will.


Williams: The design is, in essence, very simple. But when you really get into it, there were a thousand different conditions that had to be resolved. For example, any time you change heights or go from one field of material into another, you have a different edge condition. We designed on a module, but inevitably, we had to address myriad special conditions. Ceilings Plus was very receptive to working with us to translate the design intent into a workable solution.

Higgins: With 182 different panel sizes and types, plus the different perimeter and trim pieces, the biggest challenge on the job was just the logistics of finding all the parts and having them in the right area when it was time to put them up.

Lord: This job could not have been done without the CAD shop drawings provided by Ceilings Plus.

Torrens: Their detailer is phenomenal. I have never seen a set of shop drawings that detailed and precise before. There were over 100 sheets in the set of shop drawings.

Mercolino: Each panel is individually fabricated using state-of-the-art computer-controlled equipment. Automation has made metal fabrication much more affordable; with CAD/CAM, we can do customized work for not much more than the cost of doing standard panels. If an architect can draw the ceiling, we can probably make it.


Higgins: The mechanical equipment above the ceiling was installed in a couple of stages. The heavy mechanicals were placed first. Then we installed the skeleton for the ceiling, the concealed grid. After that, they put in the finished mechanicals and we would install the panels immediately around protrusions. The mechanical and electrical contractors would then bring their work to the surface of the panels and we would install the rest of the ceiling panels.

Torrens: Because this was a completely custom job, it took awhile to get the details down. The first couple of phases of the job were done on the fly and there was a little learning curve involved. But once that was out of the way, the rest of the job went well. The job was phased over several months, doing one 13,000-sqaure-foot room each week. Once the concealed ceiling grid is installed, the tiles themselves just pop right in. In a day you can have a 13,000-square-foot room "whited out" with ceiling.

Mercolino: The panels are held in place with concealed torsion spring clips. This made them easy to install and allows access above the ceiling wherever required.

Higgins: Our crews liked working with the metal ceiling once they got used to it.

Lord: It was a challenge to lay out the barrel vaults until we came up with an efficient system. But it's amazing to look at-the arched ceilings are all dead on. The electrical equipment and the lights meet it perfectly. We learned some tricks about installing metal ceilings, but we are not going to give away all our secrets.


Torrens: The ceilings weren't cheap. But remember that this was an open plan. The fact that you have no walls, doors or any of the other finishes that go into individual offices makes up for the cost of the ceilings. When the budget was originally conceived, we didn't know what the inside was going to look like, so we just threw a cost per square foot at the construction cost, and we came pretty close to that budget.

At the end of the day, it was dollars and cents and whether we could keep to the budget. That's the way we looked at it.

Williams: We also factored the ceiling into the budget very early. I won't say the system is an order of magnitude higher in price, but neither is it within just a few percentage points of the traditional lay-in ceiling. This building was seen as an investment for this company-it owns it. It is going to occupy and use it, and it is looking at the long term.

Torrens: But this was not a life-cycle-cost approach; this was pure design. It was really architecture that mattered.


Williams: I think the metal ceiling's a total success. It's pretty spectacular.

Torrens: Photographs can't do it justice. You have to walk in and feel it. The job is really very nice.

Side bar: Refresh Your Knowledge of Acoustics

After years of being a somewhat quiet issue, acoustics in commercial buildings is making noise again. The reason: A growing number of companies are demanding productivity gains as the return on their investment in facilities. The result: An excellent opportunity for contractors who have a good working knowledge of acoustics to increase their sales. To take advantage of this trend toward improved acoustics in commercial buildings: 1) Bone up on acoustic solutions practices, such as reverberation calculations. 2) Become more aware of higher performance materials. Understand how and why they work. 3) Understand more about acoustical solutions to open-plan and closed-plan office noise; to lack of speech privacy in offices, healthcare and government facilities; and to sound reflection/reverberation problems in mercantile and hospitality-type environments. 4) Talk to your building owner's customers about the acoustic problems they are having. You will probably be amazed at the magnitude ... and perhaps the opportunity. Fred Folsom is manager of office segment marketing for Armstrong.