Ceilings become transluminous

Color-changing LED fixtures located above each panel become pixels that can be used for visual information or entertainment.
Photo courtesy FamousMods.com

A future brightly seen
In several iterations of Star Trek, the bridges on Enterprise and Discovery have luminous ceilings—and why not? The crews of the spaceships require high-quality illumination, and so do the television and movie directors of photography. The distinction between ceiling and illuminant blurs; light appears to be coming from the ceiling and neither transmitted through or reflected from the surface. Science fiction can portend reality, and Gene Roddenberry and his disciples may be more prescient than we realize.

In extrapolating from contemporary trends, one finds interior daylighting is now available with tensioned 
fabric structures, building enclosures that are made of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (EFTE) foils, and electrochromic (EC) and other types of glass, along with other wonders of modern material science. This is acclimating the public to the benefits of uniform overhead light.

LEDs have usurped the supremacy of incandescent, fluorescent, and other 20th-century lamps. Their reign is being challenged, in turn, by OLED (organic light-emitting diodes) and quantum-dot technologies even better-suited for use as thin light sources for luminous ceilings. Is viable bioluminescent lighting far behind? Will semiconductor technology advance to the level that light-emitting surfaces are simply painted onto structures?

Major lamp manufacturers have introduced their own take on luminous ceilings. Apple, an arbiter of contemporary taste, has patented a luminous ceiling system and is installing swaths of luminous ceilings as it remodels its stores. The technologies that make ever more thin and svelte cell phones and flat screens is leading to light-emitting surfaces flexible enough to apply like wallpaper.

Faced with the growing danger of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, designers of healthcare and cleanroom environments are turning to more hygienic ceiling systems that are washable and reduce the presence of light fixtures, sprinklers, and other utilities within controlled environments. (The article, “Lighting as an Integral Part of Architecture,” appeared in the Autumn 1952 issue of College Art Journal [vol. 12, no. 1]. )

Luminous surfaces are also finding their way onto 
walls, floors, and furniture. The light boxes employed to transilluminate retail signage are increasingly thinner. Lighting controls are becoming part of the Internet of Things (IoT) to enhance the customer or tenant experience and reduce power consumption.

While the luminous ceiling techniques developed in 
the 20th century still have relevance, designers are no longer limited by their aesthetic. New panel styles and installation methods are evolving to satisfy changing tastes and needs. Processes for manufacturing vinyl and other light-transmitting materials have become cleaner, and recycling programs are in place. Manufacturing of custom designs will continually be simplified as 3D printing techniques improve. It should not be surprising, therefore, that luminous ceilings are boldly going where no ceiling has gone before.

Allowing daylight to enter a building can reduce the energy demand of electric lamps and is encouraged by energy conservation building codes. Programs like the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and the WELL Building Standard also encourage daylighting for its positive psychological impact on building occupants.

Luminous ceilings can play a role in two daylighting scenarios: top- and side-lighting.

Top lighting
Light is invisible until it illuminates a surface. Direct beams of sunlight penetrating a skylight create bright spots of light on the floor while leaving the rest of a room in shadow. A luminous ceiling or luminous ceiling cloud beneath the skylight diffuses the beam to reduce glare and ceils a room with a bright diffuse sky effect producing a positive psychological reaction.

Skylights typically have less thermal insulation value than the roof around them. Installing a luminous ceiling within the light well beneath the skylight creates a buffer that retards heat loss.

Some skylights are meant to be seen and even to provide views of the sky. Yet, in other locations, designers may want to minimize visibility of skylights while optimizing daylighting value. In the latter case, luminous ceilings conceal skylight while still harvesting daylight.

Side lighting
Direct sunlight that penetrates through windows can create intensely bright glare along a building’s perimeter without benefitting occupants in the interior of a floor plate. A light shelf reduces brightness at the window and reflects light further into the building. Using a translucent material prevents the underside of the shelf from being in complete shadow and reduces the luminous ratio between the shelf and the window. Drop-out panels also eliminate the need to install fire sprinklers beneath the shelves.

Ed Davis is president of Ceilume, a manufacturer of thermoformed ceiling panels, and has been responsible for product testing and obtaining product evaluations and approvals. He can be reached at ed@ceilume.com.

David Condello, CSI, has more than 20 years of experience in construction and is the architectural services manager for Ceilume. He can be reached at david@ceilume.com.

Michael Chusid, RA, FCSI, CCS, is an architect, a Fellow of CSI, and a Certified Construction Specifier. He is a frequent contributor to The Construction Specifier, and a consultant to building product manufacturers. He can be reached at www.chusid.com.

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