The room’s “fifth wall” plays a bigger role than even some contractors give it credit for, especially with trends towards multi-family dwellings, basement home theatre and rec rooms, and tighter building envelopes.

“The ceiling retrofit market is on its own a huge industry,” says Jigar Desai, Canadian Retail Sales Manager for Armstrong Ceilings. “The hardest part of the (product) category is educating the consumer and contractors. Until now ceiling tiles were viewed as a luxury that people put into their basements to have access to plumbing.”

Changes in home building have sparked an evolution in the ceiling industry, he suggests. Ironically, one of the biggest impacts is from flooring. “Floors used to typically be tiles in the kitchen, carpet in the living room and a dining room with a wooden floor. Now everything has a hard surface, and with all those hard surfaces you need to have a way to control sound.”

Of course, ceilings, especially modern ones, play a major role in sound control.

The Sound of Silence

Typical homeowners don’t realize how important controlling sound is until they move into a new house, Desai notes.

“Then they realize there’s a lot of echo.” While the homeowner throwing down a rug or adding furniture can help deaden some of the noise created by sound bouncing off the room’s hard surfaces, it’s not always enough.

To understand room acoustics, one must look at two important, but different, factors: isolation and absorption. Isolation is the ability to prevent noise from traveling from one room to the next. Absorption represents the ability to reduce the noise that occurs as sound is reflected off surfaces.

In ceiling or wall products, these factors are represented by three standard measurements: NRC, CAC and STC (or ASTC).

Noise Reduction Coefficient

NRC (noise reduction coefficient) is the overall sound absorption of the material when used in an enclosed space. NRC is rounded to the nearest 0.05.

As a rule of thumb, NRCs of less than 0.50 are poor, while those greater than 0.80 are very good. A ceiling material with an NRC of 0.60 is good, and will absorb 60% of the sound.

Ceiling Attenuation Class

CAC (ceiling attenuation class) is the ability for a ceiling, in particular, to act as a barrier for sound transmission. The higher the CAC, the better the ceiling prevents sound from travelling between rooms. CAC of 25 is considered low, while 35 is high. A CAC of 30 will block 30% of the sound.

Sound Transmission Class

STC (sound transmission class) is relatedly a measure of the ceiling, walls or floor’s ability to block sound. Panels or boards with higher ratings block more noise. An STC rating of +/-10 makes sounds half or twice as loud, respectively. Increasingly, building codes are looking not at materials’ STC, but the systems overall ASTC (apparent sound transmission class). This stricter measurement can typically be 5 to 8 points less than STC. As STC tells builders and engineers what a material should block, ASTC represents what it does block in the field.

Issues of acoustical performance is an increased focus in both residential and commercial ceiling installs, says Grant Hilton, product manager for ceilings at Canadian Gypsum Company (CGC) Inc.

Photo courtesy of Armstrong Ceilings

Photo courtesy of Canadian Gypsum Company Inc.

Photo courtesy of Armstrong Ceilings

“We advocate a balanced acoustics approach,” he suggests. “Where you’re combining your NRC and CAC levels to accommodate the needs of the area.” “A lot of areas are multifunctional spaces. So, you’ll want to have areas of privacy, and you’ll want to manage the [absorption] in that space, but you’ll also want to control what gets over that wall.” Hilton points to his company’s Mars acoustic ceiling tiles, which provide not only a wide array of designs but a wide range of acoustical performance.

Educating homeowners on sound issues is key, suggests Desai. Many homeowners are ready to dish out big bucks on a top-brand big-screen TV and sophisticated sound system, but overlook the importance of investing into a space that performs acoustically well.

So Long Popcorn

Many homeowners may want home theatre rooms with excellent acoustics, but not everyone wants popcorn—at least not on their ceiling. For many the time has certainly come to replace this dated ceiling look, but it’s a task has been costly and cumbersome in the past.

“What we’ve seen is that in 7 out of 10 houses that are 15 to 20 years old there is spot from a past leak in the popcorn ceiling in their living room,” Desai says.

“To cover and clean that is time, money and mess for the homeowner. Even if they scrapped it, it could be $3,000 for a 15’ x 20’ room, plus they’d have to have their vents cleaned.”

Desai says his company offers a simple solution with its WoodHaven laminate ceiling planks. Using a furring strip, the planks can be installed directly atop the old ceiling creating a good-as-new ceiling with a wood aesthetic. Previously available only in white, the company has recently launched WoodHaven featuring bamboo, rustic pine, light ash, maple and more. According to Desai, the homeowner loses .” or less off the room height when applying it atop the existing ceiling.

Focus Points & Design

Ceilings can play another important role in today’s open-concept room designs, Desai says. “Before, you’d have a kitchen then a wall, then another room. In 80% of new homes now it’s an island. Homeowners need something to break up their vision.”

He recommends installing a focal piece above the island, 5” lower than the ceiling with a product like Armstrong’s Metallaire metal ceiling tiles. With today’s typical 9’ or 10’ ceilings, the householder doesn’t lose a lot of space, but it creates a very modern look, he suggests.

Open concept isn’t the only design trend to consider. Hilton notes that homeowners are seeking a more contemporary style through “smooth, clean, monolithic and minimalistic” ceilings. The effect is achieved through the use of larger planklike panels, which he says CGC has grown its offerings in various categories to include.

Keep it Clean

As DIY-savvy homeowners become more acutely aware of environmental issues both inside and outside the home, contractors should be prepared for them to continue to play a bigger role in material choice.

“Homeowners are becoming more concerned with what’s in the product, whether it’s a piece of drywall or a ceiling tile” Hilton says. “And as the consumer education grows, you see all these governing bodies emerge.”

It’s an issue that hits both the commercial and residential markets, and one that has manufacturers making a concerted effort around indoor air quality and environmental transparency.

Photo courtesy of Armstrong Ceilings

“We ensure low-VOC in our cast-made products, to have basically zero VOC,” Hilton says. “You start there, and the next concern is around providing product transparency; things like Green Guard gold certification, PARs (product attribute reports), EPDs (environmental product declarations), to provide real transparency on the manufacturing side.”

In the end, though, the question of the right ceiling product tends to come down to purpose. A rec room or home theatre is going to have different acoustical, functional and design needs compared with a laundry, or compared to a guestroom. Fortunately, there is no shortage of options on the market.

“Know the room’s function and then check off the boxes around how it needs to be designed, what you need to incorporate from carpets to wall panels to ceiling panels. Have a strong understanding of the space’s intended use,” Hilton says.

“The offerings are out there to build it. Review those higher CAC and NRC ceiling products and find the ones tailored to meeting the room conditions you need to achieve.”

Photos courtesy of Canadian Gypsum Company Inc.