Acoustical Ceilings: A Quiet Idea Overhead

July 24, 2009
Acoustical ceilings are a practical way to aid communication in a variety of spaces

When looking at a space acoustically, the same principles from 50 years ago still apply today. Although architectural and interior design styles have changed – along with the way we use spaces, and the equipment in them – good acoustical design is still an integral part of making the space fulfill its purpose. Whether we’re looking at retail space, a restaurant, open-plan offices, a videoconference room, a theater, a courtroom, an educational space, medical space, or another facility space, the implementation of an acoustical ceiling is one of many practical ways to help achieve acoustical success. It can provide necessary absorption, reflection, or isolation and can be cost effective and environmentally friendly as well.

The application of acoustical principles to the built environment acknowledges that the purpose of that space is to facilitate communication and community – the basis of what we call “acoustically reinforced architecture.” The good news is that aesthetics don’t need to be sacrificed for the sake of good acoustics (nor vice versa). There are many product options on the market that are compatible with a wide variety of design approaches. As awareness of the importance of acoustics grows, the need for new acoustical solutions is required for new or unique applications. Manufacturers are continually working to provide products that are attractive to their client base. For instance, there are numerous fabric- or plaster-faced ceiling products that have the appearance of gypsum board. These products maintain a high acoustical performance while allowing more design freedom. They avoid the 2-foot by 2-foot grid look and replace it with the seamlessness of sheetrock. Other products – for instance, those made of perforated wood – can provide a warm feeling while being acoustically helpful (and a renewable resource).

Attributes of Acoustical Ceiling Products

Acoustical ceiling tiles are …

  • A reliable way to achieve acoustical success on any project.
  • Available to satisfy a wide variety of design goals.
  • Long lasting and cost effective.
  • Made of a surface that doesn’t need to be impact resistant and gets minimal wear and tear.
  • Compatible with green building design.
  • Often made of recycled or renewable material.
  • Helpful in obtaining LEED points.
  • Part of a total design solution, not a fix-all.
  • Applicable for a multitude of spaces.

In building design, environmental quality is being taken into consideration now more than ever, often translating into spaces with higher ceilings, more window surface area, and greater airflow. This provides better lighting and ventilation, and earns LEED points, but also has the potential to increase mechanical noise and decrease speech privacy. Products with mineral fiber backing can prove especially useful in reducing the build-up of noise and acoustically isolating spaces. They provide the absorptive characteristics of an acoustical ceiling tile (ACT) while providing better sound isolation than the typical ACT.

In many design cases where acoustical absorption is necessary, a good broadband absorber is the optimal solution. This is difficult to find in many absorptive products that are attached directly to a surface because of inadequate absorptive properties at low frequencies; however, the air cavity created when suspending a ceiling grid below a structure allows great absorption at low frequencies. When coupled with an absorptive product that performs well at mid and high frequencies, it’s a great broadband absorber.

Keep in mind that acoustical ceiling products are a great boon, but must be part of an overall design solution for the best results. In other words, the room still needs to be optimally designed for good acoustics. Ceiling tiles are part of the strategy, but not a fix-all.

Justin Meyer is a consultant at Thorburn Associates Inc., which has offices in northern and southern California, and North Carolina. He can be reached at [email protected] or (919) 463-9995.

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