Integrating lighting into specialty ceilings

In parallel, the movement away from the grid or drywall ceiling presented an opportunity for specialty ceiling designs. Initially, these open-to-structure ceilings presented several challenges relative to acoustics and aesthetics. On the acoustics front, grid ceilings using acoustical ceiling tiles (ACT) help absorb sound waves emanating from the space and lower sound transmission between rooms. Eliminating ceilings results in increased reverberation and less comfortable acoustic environments for occupants. Aesthetically, mechanical hardware typically hidden above the enclosed ceiling, including electrical cabling and duct work, would now be exposed. The cost of cleaning up these hardware elements through more organized layouts or painting can be very high. As a result of these open-to-structure problems, baffle arrays and acoustic clouds became more common, primarily to help dampen acoustic reverberation issues, but also to help block the view to the ceiling and house critical hardware, such as HVAC, sprinkler systems, luminaires, or speakers.

Over the past several years, architects and ceiling manufacturers, much like their lighting counterparts, have viewed open ceilings as a blank canvas to innovate with creative ceiling forms and materials. Established manufacturers and emerging specialty ceiling companies have been experimenting with complex, multi-dimensional ceilings, leveraging new materials like felt, metal, and perforated wood, and using computerized, algorithmic processes to deliver sophisticated and vibrant designs. As a result, the specialty ceiling category has seen a dramatic increase in market share relative to traditional ceiling types.

An aesthetically integrated ceiling and luminaire baffle system specified together. Photos courtesy Focal Point

As great as this movement has been for interior architecture, the growing category of specialty ceilings has led to major challenges with integrating lighting solutions able to achieve both the desired lighting functionality and a seamlessly integrated aesthetic. Challenges along the design, specification, sourcing, and installation process include selecting the right form factors which will not disrupt the ceiling design, puzzle-piecing lighting and ceiling products, coordinating the appropriate textiles or finishes across products, determining which trade—the ceiling or the electrical contractor—is responsible for what component, and coordinating the activity at the job site accordingly.

Ceiling and lighting design: An exercise in collaboration

As specialty ceilings—along with their most effective integrated lighting solutions—become more prevalent in architecture, the primary objective of the specifier, contractor, and manufacturer communities will be to ensure a finished installed ceiling system achieves the right balance of lighting, acoustic, aesthetic, and budgetary requirements. The more complex a ceiling system becomes, the more the elements of the system need to be designed together, and the more each stakeholder needs to be engaged to help achieve this balance. Today, the tools exist to enable this iterative, cooperative design, but the limitations of manufacturer standard products, along with the historical roles established for specifiers and contractors, make the coordination difficult.

To demonstrate, take the case of a basic linear felt baffle system. Traditionally, when baffle systems are implemented in a design, the interior architect defines the ceiling plane and specifies baffle spacing, height, material, and mounting method, among other attributes. Once the design is in place, the lighting designer or electrical engineer finds lighting solutions which fit within the baffle array. A series of suspended cylinders or linear products are often specified between the baffles to achieve the task or general lighting levels required. This traditional approach leads to two fundamental problems. First, the aesthetic coordination between the baffles and luminaires is suboptimal, as the latter can be visually disruptive, both by forcing the luminaire to fit within the preset baffle spacing (Figure 1) and potentially projecting light onto the side of some baffles in the larger system. Second, if a design change occurs further downstream, say, if one determines 457.2 mm (18 in.) of on-center spacing is required for the baffles instead of 304.8 mm (12 in.) of on-center spacing, or if an obstruction occurs onsite, the lighting will need to be repositioned and/or the layout redone to accommodate the new baffle spacing and placement of the luminaires.

A multidimensional ceiling plane with integrated lighting running perpendicular to the baffles

A solution to this aesthetic and coordination concern is what several manufacturers have tried to address in recent years: providing both the standard acoustic baffles and luminaires with a baffle housing. In this case, the baffle ceiling can be specified and iterated on, then the lighting designer can choose which baffles to light up. Coordinating the baffle system up-front, either from a single manufacturer or a partnership between ceiling and lighting providers, can ensure the textiles for both components are batched together and matched, the acoustic design can be optimized, and the full system can be coordinated at the job site. The result is a much more aesthetically pleasing and easy-to-install solution (Figure 2).

Of course, systems like these are tougher to pull apart, which can meet resistance from the ceiling and electrical contractor trades when it comes to bidding and product substitution. Ensuring the system is split between Division 09 for ceiling products and Division 26 for lighting products, as well as cross-referenced in each CSI MasterFormat division, is key for labor bidding and installation. The result of this additional effort—a fully coordinated, clean, and integrated specialty system with a single manufacturer—is valuable in maintaining the integrity of the design.

This example of designing and integrating a simple baffle system demonstrates the potential complexities which arise and the thoughtfulness required when attempting to integrate lighting into a more complicated ceiling plane, like a multi-dimensional ceiling system, or even more aggressive ceiling system forms based on parametric design principles.

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