Open Ceiling in Research Labs – A Fad or A Useful Feature
A ceiling can be defined as an overhead interior surface that covers the upper limits of a room. Ceilings are not structural elements, but rather the finished surface below a roof or a slab. The broad categories of ceilings are open (or exposed) ceilings and false (or suspended ceilings).
Ceilings provide the space and anchorage for mechanical components like ducting, Plumbing/ Gas lines (MEP), Lighting Fixtures, Smoke/Fire alarms, Automatic Sprinklers, Audio Speakers, Noise dampeners, etc. Ceilings are top envelopes featuring elements of aesthetics as well as holding essential services.
The open ceiling is open literally to the top end of the space. A false ceiling has a suspended roof (from the top) that conceals whatever it holds from the eyes. We have commonly seen false ceilings very often in labs and offices. They have served the purpose and offered some features. Open ceilings are relatively new and offer their special advantages. The trend is catching up among lab architects, designers, and researchers (users) to use open ceilings for offices as well as laboratories. A common example of an open ceiling is what we see in shopping malls.
Let us review the advantages and limitations of both types.
Suspended (False) Ceilings
Suspended ceilings are hung from the roof or a slab. They consist of metallic suspenders, frames (or grids), and concealing panels of different materials placed on the grids, creating a seamless aesthetic (false) roof. Some (or all) panels are removable to create service access to the services that run in the space thus created.
The following are the main advantages:
- Concealed ducting, plumbing (MEP), wires, and other elements create a smooth uniform aesthetically pleasing roof. Access for maintenance is always available by removing panels.
- Fast installation owing to standard designs and components. Ready in a short time.
- Easy integration of electrical fittings, Air vents, Lighting fixtures, Electricals, Smoke detectors, etc. in the ceiling system.
- Soundproofing: A variety of roofing panels are available that block external sounds and dampen interior noise. This results in better acoustics within the lab which is a big plus.
- Fireproofing: Fire-resistant roofing panels can contain the fire to the rated time, say 1 hour, facilitating safe evacuation during an emergency. Additional fire barriers could be installed above the suspended ceiling.
- Insulation: A suspended ceiling provides insulation, thereby saving precious energy in air-conditioned labs.
- Air conditioning loads: False ceiling helps to limit the cooling volume and hence the cooling tonnage reduces; saving significant energy.
However, as with any design, suspended ceilings do have some limitations:
- Loss of space: Suspended ceilings cause some cubic feet of space loss that can result in lab occupants feeling Claustrophobic
- Hide building issues/ warning signals: Some structural or other deficiencies (eg. Leakages in ducting, MEP) may remain hidden over the roof which might prove costly. Regular inspection by removing panels becomes necessary to avoid accidents and losses. That could mean the loss of productive time in the lab by causing maintenance disruptions.
- Deterioration: Suspended ceilings tend to sag and show discoloration after some time. This may call for the replacement of systems and panels, disrupting the lab operations.
- Costs: Additional cost of creating a suspended ceiling and maintaining it over time will have a cost implication. Some of the cost may be offset by the energy saved. Renovation and reconfiguration of the lab will be costlier when a suspended ceiling is used.
Open (Exposed) Ceilings
These are also known as open plenums technically. All the structural, ducting, and MEP members are left exposed to the eye, either with their normal colors or painted. The roof is painted for an aesthetic sense. Open ceilings are gaining popularity in almost every field. The open architecture gives the lab an industrial look and with increased height, the occupants feel more comfortable.
The following are the main advantages:
- Increased Natural Lighting: Open ceiling permits the integration of skylights on the building roof. This allows for natural light to come in. A definite ergonomic element, natural light adds to the aesthetics of the labs.
- Creative Design: Open ceilings allows design creativity with custom lighting and ducting/ piping fixtures. Mechanical and Electrical parts are architecturally enhanced and serve as decorative elements and not merely functional.
- Modern Appearance: Keeping in trend with contemporary workspaces, open ceiling labs look modern and efficient.
- Large Volume: In contrast to the suspended ceiling, an open ceiling does offer extra volume. It allows the warm air to rise, keeping the occupant spaces cooler. Extra height can accommodate taller installations, allow more storage spaces and provides scope for reconfiguration at a later time. The uncluttered, large feel in the lab is a boon in itself.
- Easy Access for servicing: Elements are easily accessed in lesser time for maintenance of engineering services.
However, open ceiling labs require careful design, planning, and execution. Poorly designed open spaces could pose problems related to bad acoustics, cluttering of MEP systems, etc.
Some limitations are:
- Unfinished Look isn’t easy to create: It requires careful design and skilled labor to make a pleasing installation. There is nothing to hide. All defects may be exposed. Many elements need to be painted. The costs might be higher.
- Noise infiltration: Open ceilings do not provide for sound dampening. They might create echo points in the lab. It calls for good design skills and practices to keep the sound levels to the desired level.
- Higher Energy Consumption: Open ceilings do not create any barrier in heat transfer. They burden the HVAC system and add to the capital and running costs. But in for fume hood centric research labs, this is not a problem; since the AC tonnage depends on the fume hood exhaust and not on the ceiling height.
In conclusion, it can be stated that open ceilings create an aesthetic vibe in labs, leading to an aesthetic and productive workspace for scientists. The trend to use open ceilings in labs is catching up fast. However, it shouldn’t be assumed that open ceilings are informal and less expensive. On the contrary, they call for specialized skills in design and execution. The decision in favor of any one type of ceiling must be taken carefully.
We at Labguard are equipped with modern design tools and experience to supplement your efforts in creating a lab (open or suspended ceiling) that best serves its objectives. Do get in touch with us at an early stage in your project.