Starting at the Top

The ceiling systems schools choose are just as important as any other finishing materials and furnishings that help to create a constructive learning environment. Pencil-proof ceilings exist, but so do those that stand up to other abuse. Ceiling systems can control noise, improve light levels and impress parents without burdening them as taxpayers.

Each area of a school has different ceiling needs, so choosing appropriate systems can be complicated. A basic understanding of the characteristics that differentiate ceiling products can help you choose the correct system.

Schools should evaluate ceiling systems based on three principal factors: performance, aesthetics and cost. If your ceilings fulfill these goals, your school's ceiling systems will perform for as long as 20 to 30 years.

A great performance

Performance covers several factors, including acoustics, light reflectance, durability and humidity levels. Acoustical ceiling panels are designed to absorb and control sound to varying degrees. The way a space will be used usually determines the desired acoustics. In most school settings, the goal is to limit sound travel from one room to another, while keeping sound levels within a specific space (such as a classroom) high enough that students throughout the room can hear the instructor and one another.

Various standardized acoustical ratings are assigned to ceiling panels. For example, the Noise Reduction Coefficient (NRC) defines the sound absorption of a panel. An NRC rating of .55 or higher is preferable for classrooms and other spaces where sound control within the room is important. The Ceiling Attenuation Class (CAC) measures the amount of sound passing through a panel and the plenum into an adjacent space. Ceiling systems with a CAC range of 35 to 39 are recommended for school settings where sound should be blocked between rooms — between a hallway and a classroom, for example.

Light Reflectance (LR) is a consideration with ceiling systems, especially in areas with indirect lighting. Panels with high LR ratings — 85 or higher — are desirable in classrooms, computer labs and media centers. These panels make more efficient use of available light and can reduce the number of light fixtures needed to help contain energy costs. The use of uplighting and high-LR ceiling panels can reduce glare on computer screens and ease eyestrain.

Durability is considered a vital high-performance feature in schools. Generally, ceiling panels used in elementary schools receive moderate abuse, while panels in middle and high schools receive greater abuse. For high-traffic zones and areas where students are under less supervision, such as hallways and lunchrooms, look for panels that are made to resist scratches, dents and punctures. The most durable panels are cast products, which are formed and cured in a mold. As a result, they are harder and resist damage better than standard acoustical panels. And because their color is uniform throughout the panel rather than simply painted on the surface, nicks are less visible.

The humidity level of a room and the external environment also will affect the choice of a ceiling system. Heating and air-conditioning systems are often shut down overnight, on weekends and during extended breaks. This causes fluctuating humidity levels that can warp or sag ceiling panels that are not humidity-resistant.

The importance of aesthetics will depend on location. In the more visible areas of a school, such as hallways and student commons, use higher-end ceiling panels and grid, which come in a variety of colors, textures and patterns. They will create a stronger impression with visitors.

Ceilings chosen for their appearance can enhance school pride. Students who like the way their school looks tend to take better care of it. And achieving an attractive ceiling does not have be expensive. Specialty ceiling products can create great aesthetics without the cost of custom-made systems. They use standard components to create unique ceiling designs incorporating shapes such as curves, vaults and valleys that make dramatic additions to more public spaces.

Pay up

While cost is always an important consideration, the lowest-priced ceiling system is not always the best choice, but neither is the most expensive. The system that performs and retains its attractive look the longest will be the most economical. Before opting for a less expensive ceiling system, weigh the effect your choice will have on the space's overall performance.

Look for a warranty as well. High-quality ceiling systems not only save money because of their long-term reliability, but also are covered by manufacturers' warranties that replace panels or grid if the unexpected happens.

Room by Room

Performance, aesthetics and cost will vary in importance depending on the area of the school. Here are some tips on selecting ceilings for specific areas:

  • Administrative offices

    Consider ceilings with high light reflectance, strong acoustical performance and better aesthetics.

  • Art studios

    Acoustics are not as critical here, but durable, washable ceiling panels are a good choice. Consider specialty ceilings that form curved or vaulted spaces to spark creativity.

  • Auditoriums/gymnasiums

    Choose durable, abuse-resistant systems. Acoustics are also a consideration — look for ceiling panels that help contain noise. For areas that serve as auditoriums and common areas, consider a system that offers more aesthetics, too.

  • Classrooms

    Excessive noise can impede learning, so choose ceilings with good acoustics.

  • Corridors/hallways

    For these noisy, high-traffic areas, opt for systems that withstand abuse and meet life-safety codes. The ceiling system should control noise, and resist humidity and abuse while providing a fresh appearance.

  • Food-preparation areas

    Choose a ceiling system that meets health and safety requirements while resisting abuse and soiling. Humidity-resistant ceiling panels and grids particularly are important here.

  • Locker rooms/shower areas/swimming pools

    Extreme heat and humidity can shorten the life of an interior system, so be sure to choose a system with a lifetime warranty on its humidity-resistant ceiling panels and grid. Choose a sag-resistant panel and non-corrosive grid that are abuse-resistant.

  • Media centers

    Maintain an area conducive to learning by choosing a ceiling that provides high NRC and CAC ranges, which will limit sound travel. A ceiling system's color and texture can create a pleasant environment, while one that is highly light-reflective will provide a better space for reading.

Golden is director, segment marketing, for USG Corporation, Chicago.

Wall systems

Concrete block is solid, durable and a popular choice for load-bearing walls. But it also can be inflexible, cold in appearance and expensive to erect when masons are in short supply and labor costs are high. Abuse-resistant wall systems can be a good alternative for the interior walls of schools.

  • Acoustical wall panels covered in fabric or vinyl install easily over steel studs, drywall or masonry. They offer outstanding acoustical performance and can be customized to complement other interior finishes.

  • Relocatable walls are pre-engineered for flexibility and high performance. When classroom sizes or needs change, simply move the walls.

  • Abuse-resistant panels are engineered to provide greatly enhanced resistance to abrasion, indentation and impact. Because the panels look like standard drywall when they are finished, they are a great choice for the walls and ceilings of school corridors, classrooms, media centers and gymnasiums. They are installed over metal studs and can be used wherever greater durability is needed in place of or in conjunction with gypsum wallboard.

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