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The Fifth Wall: In Over Your Head

April 29, 2014

In the world of interior design, it’s been said that walls are the most underutilized real estate in commercial environments1. Although there is an element of truth to that claim, there is another dimension to interiors that has traditionally been underdeveloped as a design element—a “fifth wall” that represents as much square footage as the floorplate, but is often left exposed, underutilized, or overlooked as an opportunity to introduce decorative elements.

We’re talking about ceilings, of course.

While the modern suspended ceiling system hasn’t changed much since the 1960s, it is still the most common type of ceiling used in the design of commercial buildings because of its numerous advantages, including low cost, flexibility, quick installation, acoustical properties, adaptability to lighting and mechanical systems, as well as easy access to the plenum2. Typically, drop ceilings have been used to hide mechanical systems such as ductwork and piping, giving the space overhead a clean, monolithic look, but the trend toward exposed ceilings continues in commercial interiors despite the performance benefits of using ceiling systems3.

In fact, research has shown that adding design elements to the ceiling plane can have a significant impact on the overall ambiance of a space, and can create feelings of openness, seclusion, intimacy, or even energy4. Furthermore, a study of the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of wall-to-wall ceilings versus an open plenum found that while initial installation costs are higher for suspended ceiling systems, energy costs and maintenance are lower than those of exposed ceilings in the long run5.

Suspended ceiling systems utilizing decorative ceiling tiles present tremendous opportunities for designers and architects to create impact and visual interest within an interior space, while also addressing a number of performance, safety, and environmental issues.

design options: through the roof!
Decorative ceilings tiles are far from new. Tin ceiling tiles gained popularity in North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a less expensive alternative to plaster ceilings; they also had the added benefits of being more lightweight, durable, and inherently fireproof6.

A popular architectural element in Victorian buildings from taverns and theaters to homes and hotels, the look of old world tin ceilings, coupled with a variety of patinas such as copper and bronze, is experiencing a resurgence in commercial interiors. And with virtually endless color, texture, and finish options, the design possibilities in decorative ceiling tiles are through the roof!

  • Heavy metal. Thermoplastic panels are produced by laminating decorative foils to a plastic substrate that allows them to mimic real metals and even wood grains, but at a fraction of the cost and weight. Encompassing silver, bronze, gold, and copper finishes, these three-dimensional laminates can also be texturized to achieve greater realism and warmth in any space.
  • Modern looks. If a more contemporary aesthetic is desired, specifiers can choose from a nearly limitless variety of finishes, including brushed metals, mirrored looks, high-gloss finishes, and hundreds of color combinations. Textured pattern options range from diamond plate, bamboo, basket weave, and brick to countless geometric and organic forms in differing scales that enable designers to find the perfect match for any décor.
  • Nature-inspired. Interior furnishings that take design cues from nature are in higher demand today than ever before, as new research has linked the presence of natural materials, such as wood, with positive human health7. Decorative tiles specified in a variety of wood grain options—including cherry, oak, maple, and others—not only add warmth to the ceiling plane, but can also help occupants feel more at ease, which is especially beneficial in healthcare settings.
  • Luminous tiles. Luminous ceilings utilize translucent rather than opaque materials in the ceiling plane to create a new form of lighting that provides even light distribution throughout the space. Luminous ceilings can reduce stress on the eyes while creating an open feel in conference rooms or basements where daylight is lacking. Color gels can be added to the light fixtures above the luminous tiles to change the mood of a room—perfect for restaurants, bars, lobby areas, spas, and salons. Most luminous tiles can also be applied to an existing grid system, so they are a sensible choice for designers who are looking for a quick and affordable option to update an interior environment.
  • Light diffusers. Designers can also dramatically enhance the look of existing drop ceiling systems by using light diffusers, available in contemporary designs that can add up to 30 percent brighter light within a space. Light diffusers replace existing prismatic ones within a suspended ceiling system to create a more attractive look without the need to change out the mineral fiber tiles. Diffusers are ideal for office environments because the light is directed from side to side and does not shine downward onto computer stations.
  • Custom designs. With advances in technology, manufacturers now offer custom laminate options that can be matched to virtually any color or replicated to mimic just about any pattern—including company logos that can effectively showcase a brand in corporate or retail environments.

Specifiers may (rightfully) wonder how these new lay-in tiles will coordinate with an existing grid system and whether they will match the intended design theme or aesthetic. The solution is both simple and elegant: thermoplastic grid covers are available from the manufacturer to perfectly match the finishes of the new decorative tiles and create a seamless look to the ceiling.


performance: more than just good looks
Because decorative ceiling tiles can be constructed from a wide variety of resilient substrates—including PVC, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polycarbonates, modified acrylics, aluminum, fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP), fabric, plywood, and hardboard—they perform extremely well in even the most demanding environments while also meeting safety requirements for commercial interiors.

  • Durability. Many decorative ceiling panels are ultra-rigid and provide impact resistance, abrasion and scratch resistance, chemical resistance, and superior corrosion resistance. Unlike traditional gypsum ceiling tiles which can be susceptible to water damage and mold, most thermoplastic ceiling tiles are mold- and mildew-free, as well as moisture resistant. And don’t let the slim, lightweight profile or attractive finishes fool you: thermoplastic ceiling tiles can withstand surprisingly high impacts and offer exceptional scratch resistance with the addition of transparent, protective overlays.
  • Safety. Regardless of the type of ceiling tile specified for a project, it must meet safety requirements as a flame retardant. Any tile installed as a glue-up or over an existing grid system must meet the ASTM E84-06 standard for surface burning characteristics of building materials to pass code and be deemed safe for commercial applications. Fortunately, there are a myriad of decorative ceiling tiles that meet or exceed the ASTM standard, so be sure to check the manufacturer specifications for flame retardancy.
  • Acoustics. With the open office plan becoming ever-more popular in the workplace, noise mitigation has become a big factor in the design of corporate interiors. Although most decorative tiles don’t contain any inherent acoustical properties, many can be installed directly over existing gypsum ceiling systems, retaining sound absorption and insulation properties.

installation: as easy as cut & paste
One of the many benefits of specifying decorative ceiling tiles is the ease with which they can be installed in new or existing facilities. As stated earlier, many ceiling tiles can be installed directly over an existing grid system in a very brief time period without loss of acoustic or insulation characteristics. Most tiles do not require special cutting tools and are compatible with different adhesives and installation methods. In addition, many products are supplied with a removable peel coat for added protection during installation. Generally speaking, these decorative lay-in ceiling tiles allow the look of an interior space to be changed without too much intrusion, and a renovation or remodeling project can be quickly completed by even the most novice handyman or DIYer.

Benefits of Specifying Decorative Ceiling Tiles

There are a number of benefits to selecting decorative ceiling tiles over other ceiling systems on the market. Some of the benefits include:

  • Low cost
  • Quick installation
  • An array of design options (colors, patterns, textures, custom)
  • Superior durability
  • No loss of acoustical properties (when installed over existing mineral tiles)
  • Recycled content/LEED credits
  • No waste to landfill (when installed over existing grid system)
  • Adaptability to lighting and mechanical systems
  • Easy access to the plenum
  • Scratch resistance
  • Mold and mildew resistance
  • Impact resistance
  • Flame retardance

For Jackpot Joanie’s, the design incorporated the look of a metal, corrugated ceiling using laminated lay-in tiles to create a greater sense of brand unity. The finished product met the customer’s needs and resembled a metal corrugated panel that complied with a Class A Fire Rating and weight criteria for a suspended ceiling product.

  • Storage. Prior to installation, thermoplastic tiles should be stored inside in a cool, well-ventilated, dry area on the original shipping pallet—not on a concrete floor or any other surface that emits moisture. They should also be laid flat, not on edge. Additionally, because substrates may expand and contract during temperature and humidity changes, it is important to allow the tiles to acclimate to room temperature and humidity conditions at least 24 to 48 hours prior to installation.
  • Cutting/fabricating. Most thermoplastic tiles can easily be cut to size with razor knife and scissors or with routers, saw blades, and drilling tools for thermoplastics. When fabricating, always cut from the decorated side.
  • Adhesives/glue-up tiles. Before adhering glue-up tiles to any surface, always check the manufacturer’s recommendations for adhesives. For renovation projects, existing popcorn ceilings need to be scraped completely clean before new glue-up tiles can be applied. As a general rule, trowel and latex adhesives can be used to adhere the tiles to drywall or other ceiling surfaces. Brush or roll-on, non-flammable, spray-on, and water-based contact adhesives suitable for PVC also work well.
  • Lay-in tiles. For panels that need to be trimmed, use an existing mineral tile as a template, and a marker and utility knife to score tiles to size and then snap the pieces apart. If grid covers are required, install them prior to the decorative panels, which are simply inlaid directly over the existing mineral tiles within the suspension grid. If making room for a ceiling lamp, ensure that an opening is cut on the tile where the lamp will be attached.

sustainability: reuse = less waste
As the conversation about sustainability has been elevated (and complicated) over the past decade, it’s easy to overlook one of the most basic tenets of responsible environmental management: reducing waste to landfill. According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), construction and demolition waste constitutes about 40 percent of the total solid waste stream in the United States, and about 25 percent of the total waste stream in the European Union8.

Second to source reduction, building and material reuse is the next most effective strategy for reducing environmental waste because reusing existing materials avoids the environmental burden of the manufacturing process, according to the USGBC. The LEED rating system has consistently rewarded the reuse of materials, and the new version 4 now offers more flexibility and rewards all material reuse achieved by a project—both as part of a building reuse strategy and as part of a salvaging strategy9.

For renovation projects, decorative ceiling tiles are an elegant solution because they use existing tiles as a backer and eliminate the need to discard old mineral tiles that would end up in a landfill. Extending the useful life of existing mineral tiles helps mitigate the amount of construction and demolition waste during a project and can earn valuable LEED points under the Materials & Resources category.

Many decorative ceiling tile products are also constructed using a high percentage of pre-consumer recycled content, which can also help earn LEED points in the M&R category. There are also innovative high-pressure laminate products that are produced using 100 percent rapidly renewable, pre-consumer materials that are phenol-free and have formaldehyde emissions of less than 0.01 parts per million (PPM)—much lower than the LEED requirements for indoor air quality.

Third-party product certifications are an excellent way to verify a manufacturer’s environmental claims and ensure that a ceiling tile product has been produced responsibly. Although a third-party certification label does not guarantee that a product will earn LEED points or perform as well or better than its non-certified counterparts, it can help specifiers make more informed choices when selecting between like products on the market.


applications: in over your head
The number of applications for decorative ceiling tiles is limited only by the number of buildings that need ceilings (which is all of them). Thermoplastic tiles are an appropriate design solution for virtually any project type, including office buildings, hotels, casinos, retail outlets, restaurants, educational institutions, healthcare facilities—you name it.

Case in point: Jackpot Joanie’s is a micro-casino franchise in Las Vegas that recently enlisted the help of Complex Builders, Inc. to renovate a number of its locations in an effort to create a greater sense of brand unity. The design team assigned to the project felt that part of the design needed to incorporate the look of a corrugated metal ceiling. Intricate details like the depth of the corrugations, the size, and visual scope of the ceiling tiles were communicated to the manufacturer, and a new custom mold was created based on the specifications from the design team in line with the client’s goals for the project.

Once CAD drawings were approved, sample tiles in an attractive crosshatch silver pattern which were reviewed and ultimately approved by the customer for the installation. “The finished product resembled a metal corrugated panel that complied with a Class A Fire Rating and weight criteria for a suspended ceiling product, and was extremely easy to work with,” said Sherman Isensee of Complex Builders. “In instances where we required additional rigidity in the panels for ceiling-mounted elements, such as ceiling-mounted speakers and security cameras, we simply used a vinyl ceiling tile as a backer to the plastic panels.”

Jackpot Joanie’s was pleased with the look and placed orders for a number of its locations, which has resulted in an ongoing specification process, thanks to the manufacturer’s ability to provide custom services in-house and execute the project from concept to completion with an installed product.

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Similarly, a national restaurant chain was looking to create a unique look for its many locations across the country, beginning in Texas, and wanted to utilize accent ceiling tiles that would be brand recognizable. A local distributor of decorative products worked with the ceiling tile manufacturer to develop a series of distinctive, 2- by 2-foot lay-in tiles for the client.

The first was a high-use ceiling tile with an old world look in a galvanized finish, which formed the basis for a second tile that incorporated the “Texas Star” emblem and provided a touch of local flavor to the client’s many locations in the state. A third, customized tile used the same old world pattern as its foundation, but incorporated the iconic red and green chili pepper that the brand is so well known for. The client was so pleased with the product that it has been specified for a number of projects on a national scale for several years.

As these case studies and numerous others illustrate, the “fifth wall” is the ideal place to make a dramatic design statement in virtually any interior environment. With an endless variety of design options, superior durability, and performance characteristics, as well as opportunities to make environmentally-conscious specifications, decorative ceiling tiles are an ideal product for designers and specifiers who are looking for beautiful, cost-efficient options for the space overhead.


1PR Newswire, Steelcase press release, 2013

2 Ballast, David Kent, Interior Construction & Detailing for Designers and Architects, Sixth Edition, Professional Publications, Inc., 2013

3“Suspended Ceiling or Open Plenum,” Building Industry Council, 2012

4“Dressed Ceilings,” InTypes (Interior Archetypes) Research and Teaching Project, Cornell University

5“Life Cycle Analysis: Wall-to-Wall Ceilings and the Open Plenum,” Ceilings & Interior System Construction Association, 2008


7“Wood and Human Health,” FP Innovations

8, 9LEED Reference Guide for Interior Design and Construction, Version 4,2013 Edition, U.S. Green Building Council


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About the author
Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of interiors+sources and BUILDINGS media brands, and an award-winning writer, editor and design industry veteran with more than 20 years of experience in the publishing industry.