When designing and constructing a building, elements of the interior fit out seldom receive the multifaceted considerations that foundational building structures like the façade do. In the past, ceilings have been viewed as a continuous aesthetic plane with the primary function of hiding building services routed through the interior. Over the years, however, numerous developments increased the complexity of the ceiling plane. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, suspended ceilings and concrete and steel floors were developed as a “multipurpose” power membrane in which “technical rationality” and “mechanized environment” emerged as new architectural objectives. By the 1970s, the ceiling plane was viewed as a critical component in building performance. Over the past two decades, buildings themselves have become more complex as awareness for energy efficiency, daylighting and acoustical properties has grown, requiring the ceiling plane to coordinate an increasing number of services.

The range of services is vast. Technical services include lighting, climate control, fire protection, data, speakers and security, while other penetrations and interactions with columns, wall and signage require design teams to take a new approach to development and coordination of the ceiling plane. By combining planning tools like building information modeling with new products and solutions, architects are drafting more involved and coordinated ceiling planes and contractors are able to integrate all of the services.

From the Top

Though the ceiling is often treated as an afterthought, the success of a functional, well-coordinated and aesthetically pleasing ceiling begins with early-stage planning and the pre-coordination of all services. The first matter to address is the ceiling function. Consider how the plenum—or the space provided for air circulation between the structural ceiling and drop-down ceiling—will be used. For example:

  • What does the ventilation require?
  • How often will it need to be accessed?
  • Think about the weight loads on the ceiling plane, including those that are independently supported.
  • Take into account critical components such as fire and sprinklers, as well as building codes and seismic requirements.
  • What are the requirements of the ceiling itself?
  • Whether the ceiling is purely aesthetic or is being used for energy control will help determine system type and components.

Many options are available when developing a ceiling design, including modular/T-grid based ceilings, linear, open cell ceilings, planks with concealed suspension and beams/baffles. The range of materials further expands the range of choices. Options include: Wood, fiberglass, mineral board, metal, stretched fabrics and plastics/resins. The ceiling type and material not only impact the overall aesthetics of the space but also affect penetration and ceiling support.

Bring it Together

Often the most effective and well-coordinated ceiling occurs when manufacturers join early in the design and development phase of a project. Typically, preliminary discussions should include all team members, from the architects and designers to the building owners, lighting engineers, MEP engineer and various contractors. The coordination of ceiling work begins around the shop drawing phase, which often occurs too late in the process with the result that essential changes become costly.

The availability and implementation of technology such as BIM makes early discovery, analysis and coordination possible.

As stated by consulting engineer Lawrence Perry and Associates Inc., “BIM enables design teams a unique opportunity—a futuristic perspective of proposed building systems and their interoperability with architectural and structural elements.”

According to Perry, this means “unprecedented design coordination across trades and fewer conflicts in the field.” Working with manufacturers who offer comprehensive BIM packages makes it easier for architects and contractors to configure ceilings products into multiple stages of project development.

“Of the projects I model, many involve specialty ceiling applications,” said Lisa Schultz, Virtual Design & Construction coordinator at OCP Contractors. “Because many companies were not offering BIM support, I had to invest tremendous amounts of time into designing these files to be able to complete the model. The ability to download an entire assembly or kit of parts at any point makes the process much more navigable.”

Proper documentation throughout the process is also essential. Specifications, plans and details not only help ensure material coordination, attachment requirements and integration of components, but also help streamline processes amongst all team members.

Something to Talk About

The success of any relationship can sometimes be determined by frequent communication. The coordination of a ceiling plane is no exception. As with the ceiling itself, the team consists of many moving parts and each one is essential to its role and to the overall success of the project. Building projects are fast-paced and the number of people involved throughout the process, from design to implementation, is extensive. Holding “ceiling team meetings,” sharing information and documentation, and reviewing mock-ups of ceilings are ways in which focus can ensure good communication. Creating an atmosphere of collaboration helps each member accept responsibility for their role and its part in the integration of the ceiling.

Ultimately good coordination leads to better performance and aesthetics. Despite a greater understanding of the complexities in the ceiling plane, the effective coordination of services continues to be challenging. It is a multi-disciplinary challenge that requires a multi-party solution. Each element in the ceiling compliments the others to address acoustics, aesthetics, light reflectance and building services delivery. Keeping each step in mind and developing an understanding of the intricacies will help navigate an easier path. Ceilings are more than the surface the eye sees when it looks up. It is what the eyes cannot see—what goes on in the space beyond the surface—that is truly complex and extraordinary.