Focus on Acoustics: Ceiling Treatments

Note: TA provided this article for the August 2009 issue of Buildings.

Good acoustical design is an integral part of making a 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.

Aesthetics don’t need to be sacrificed for the sake of good acoustics (nor vice versa). There are many product options on the market 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).

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.