The Fifth Wall: In Over Your Head

With virtually endless design options, decorative tiles are dressing up the ceiling plane while offering numerous performance, safety, and environmental benefits.


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.

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