Once considered a low priority, designers and architects are increasingly realizing the impact of ceilings on both form and function.

In the recent history of architecture and design, wall and floor finishes have tended to steal the spotlight. Between wallpaper, paint, paneling, hardwood and tile choices, few designers put decisions about ceilings at the top of their priority lists.

Lately, however, the focus is shifting. Designers are realizing the profound impact a ceiling can have on a room’s look and function.

“We’re seeing a lot more demand for specialty ceilings,” says Dave Woodcock, Product Manager, Ceilings with CGC. “Previously, a ceiling might have been the last thing a designer thought about, so it was the last thing budgeted for.” He adds, “Now what we’re finding is there’s quite a bit of thought and budget put into ceiling designs.”

What’s the Buzz?

Back in the 1980s, building design took a turn toward the open concept, particularly in the hospitality industry. Generally, though, there weren’t corresponding adjustments to ceiling design to offset the uptick in noise levels. “In those spaces, it’s difficult to carry on a conversation with the person sitting next you,” says Mike Bielak, Sales Manager, Canada with CertainTeed Ceilings. Today, that’s changing. “With an aging population and a keener understanding of acoustics, there’s been a trend back to controlling sound,” says Bielak.

The same trend is true in today’s wide-open office spaces. To keep noise levels down and protect privacy, ceiling technology can provide a careful balance of functions.

Often, newer offices are outfitted with a suspended grid, then panels of varying materials are inserted to handle the sound, either by absorbing it, blocking its transmission to other areas, or both. “There are panels that provide high NRC (noise reduction coefficient) ratings as well as CAC (ceiling attenuation class) ratings,” says Bielak.

A product with a high NRC rating will generally offer a quieter space, while one with a high CAC rating will keep sound from traveling. “In a hospital, for example, you wouldn’t want a conversation you’re having with a doctor to carry into the room next to you,” suggests Woodcock. “That’s where the CAC would come in.”

Form with Function

Today’s panel ceilings designs are a long way from the perforated panels installed in the 1970s and 1980s. Satisfying the need for better acoustics doesn’t mean a corresponding sacrifice to style.

“One trend we’re seeing is the demand for smoother, cleaner finishes,” says Bielak. “Designers are looking for more of a drywall simulated look. They want cleaner lines, brighter, whiter tiles, along with better sound absorption coupled with the ability to block out sound from other spaces.”

It’s a shift that goes beyond public spaces. “We’re seeing the same trend in residential use, as well. In media rooms, for example, the demand for higher quality materials is on the rise,” says Bielak. A consumer with a heightened awareness of the quality of his sound system is likely to carefully consider the acoustics—and esthetics—of the room’s ceiling. “In the past that wasn’t something that the average consumer was aware of,” says Bielak. “As they become better educated about what’s available, they start to gravitate toward the high-performance products with cleaner lines.”

Sound Cloud

While panels provide effective sound management, they can also be a flexible design tool. Varying the ceiling height in specific areas—lowering it over a cluster of desks, for example to spot-treat a potentially noisy zone — can add visual interest to an open space.

“We’re seeing an increased demand for cloud designs,” says Woodcock. “These are free-floating acoustical panels built into formations—either above certain workspaces or areas that might be particularly noisy.” The edge details on the panels can be sharp or rounded, and the clouds can be layered for a three-dimensional look, allowing designers and architects a little creative leeway.

Floating panels also bridge the best of two worlds: Designers maintain an edgy, industrial feel, since duct work and high ceilings are still visible, but the “clouds” offer the acoustical benefits of a panelled ceiling.

Warm It Up with Wood

Another popular trend in residential ceilings is now making its way to public spaces, as well. “We’re seeing demand for wood ceilings a lot lately,” says Woodcock. “I’ve seen them installed in hospital waiting rooms and smaller meeting rooms; anywhere you want to add some warmth and some calm.”

Where a private home would typically install a tongue-in-groove wood ceiling, a more public space would be likely to use a suspension system where wood-finish beams of varying widths and sizes fit into a grid. More than good looks, a wood ceiling can offer sound-management benefits, as well. “We’re not just installing flat panels. Each of our products has perforations that help with managing acoustics,” says Woodcock.

Going Green

Clients are increasingly concerned about the sustainability of those wood products—and all ceiling products, for that matter.

More and more, they’re asking suppliers for FSC-certified wood products, or requesting panels made from recycled materials. Many manufacturers not only offer these products, but will provide an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) to customers. An EPD quantifies the environmental impact of a product; including the acquisition of raw material, the end product’s energy use and efficiency, and any emissions to air, soil and water.

“We make sure our products all have high recycled content, and that we source as locally as possible to reduce greenhouse gasses with transportation, so our carbon footprint is minimal,” says Woodcock.

It pays for manufacturers of ceiling products to think green. Architects are increasingly vying for high Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) ratings—an international system that recognizes excellence in green building. When they can work with ceiling product manufacturers who offer sustainable or recycled materials, and who can back that up with EPD information, they can increase their LEED ratings and create healthier buildings.

Spotlight on the Fifth Wall

Whether today’s ceilings are crafted to be greener, flatter, whiter, more acoustically effective or architecturally interesting, there’s little argument that they’re top of mind. In both industrial and residential settings, designers and architects are giving ceiling treatments their due attention, and improving both the form and function of the buildings they work on, in the process.