Open ceilings, with their exposed ductwork and industrial vibe have become popular – but trendy rarely equals inexpensive. For many years, omitting the traditional drop ceiling was assumed to be not just cooler but also to cost less. Common sense seemed to be that by choosing open ceilings, the cost of the drop ceiling was simply avoided, saving on labor, materials and time.
A 2008 study of retail and office interior construction in five cities seemed to back up that assumption. Sponsored by the Ceilings & Interior Systems Construction Association (CISCA), the study found that initial construction costs for suspended ceilings were 15-22 percent higher than for open plenums in offices, and 4-11 percent higher in retail spaces.
Great news! Or was it? It appeared this popular feature that conveys a sense of spaciousness and casual charm also saved money. Unfortunately, the news was premature.
Our years of experience have shown that open plenum ceilings have many benefits, but being cheaper isn’t one of them. It’s important to consider the hidden costs of open ceilings, which almost always make them more expensive, particularly over a building’s life cycle.
Hidden expense #1: Open does not mean unfinished
At first glance, it might seem contradictory to think that an open ceiling would cost more than installing a suspended ceiling system and infrastructure. The catch: there’s work required in both cases. Even when ductwork is exposed, it’s anything but unfinished. Hidden ductwork is typically blocky, dirty, oily and generally not aesthetically pleasing. Round or oval ducts deliver a more “finished” look but are significantly more expensive.
Hidden expense #2: Higher labor costs
As commercial construction has ramped up in recent years, developers are seeing a shortage of skilled labor in many trades, driving up construction costs. Open ceilings may involve lower material costs than suspended ceilings, but any savings is more than offset by the cost of labor-intensive tasks required for open plenum. For instance, this may include running all electrical distribution conduit tight to the deck above with the associated additional bends in the runs, rather than running all of the conduit that crosses paths at different elevations.
Hidden expense #3: Making it pretty
At a minimum, space users want everything painted, from the exposed ceiling to the ductwork and plumbing — a job that’s more complicated than simply painting walls. More significantly, existing infrastructure that’s been hiding behind suspended ceilings is often unsightly, requiring major work to make it attractive to employees or customers. In other words, the casual look of an open plenum is actually the result of substantial work.
Hidden expense #4: Sound considerations
In addition to visual considerations, open plenum plans come with a need for acoustical treatments. The panels in suspended ceilings are called acoustical tiles for a reason: they absorb sound to keep ambient noise levels from being disruptive. The hard surfaces of an exposed ceiling can create an echo effect that gets amplified as people talk louder to be heard over ambient noise.
Avoiding noise problems in open plenum plans comes at a cost. Office and retail users may install acoustical panels directly onto the deck, or suspend baffles to absorb sound in critical areas. Another solution: spray-on acoustical material on the ceiling’s hard, reflective surfaces. These products soften the surfaces to absorb some of the noise, and typically have other benefits such as thermal insulation and fire protection.
Hidden expense #5: Skyrocketing energy bills
Even if open plenum ceilings can be installed cost-effectively, there are operational cost considerations that can change the equation somewhat. A major trend in construction cost estimation is to look at the entire life-cycle cost of different solutions, including the cost of energy consumption and maintenance over time, as well as the initial materials and labor.
The CISCA study mentioned previously noted that energy costs were found to be lower in suspended ceilings than in open plenum ceilings. The savings ranged from 9 percent to 10.3 percent in offices, and from 12.7 percent to 17 percent in retail spaces studied. In addition, CISCA noted that open ceilings required frequent cleaning and periodic repainting. “Considering both first-time and operating costs, suspended ceilings are extremely cost effective,” the study concluded.
Weighing the pros and cons
The additional cost of open plenum ceilings shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Office and retail space should be designed and built to maximize its appeal to employees or customers and to enable productive use of the space; incurring an incrementally higher cost structure is a secondary concern. But users who are getting ready to build out space should be aware of the true cost of different alternatives to avoid surprises during construction. It’s natural to make the assumption that an informal, exposed ceiling is less expensive than a suspended ceiling — but the reality is often quite different.
This is the first in a two-part series on pros and cons of on-trend office and retail design elements. Read part two of the series, Does Your Modern Build-out Have a Hearing Problem?
Clay Edwards is a vice president and partner at Skender, a full-service general contractor that has renovated millions of square feet of award-winning interior workspace environments.