Eight of 10 wall and ceiling contracts that Columbus, Ohio–based Compass Construction Inc. does today incorporate specialty ceiling systems. It’s a remarkable jump from a decade ago but for Compass estimator Lisa Staten, it is all good.
“Ceiling tile was so easy not to notice years ago but now spaces are designed with specialty ceiling products that are almost impossible to overlook because of their striking designs,” says Staten, an estimator at Compass since 1998. “You want to look up.”
“It’s becoming the norm that if a project has a specialty ceiling product, then it will usually have a second one,” says Staten, who sees herself as “a bit old school” in her approach to estimating. She takes measurements to prepare bids using Bluebeam Revu but still calculates totals by hand and uses older software to tally materials and labor.
Founded in 1983, the mid-size wall and ceiling contractor works primarily in Columbus and Franklin County, but the days when 2x4s scored to look like a 2×2 ceiling tiles were seen as “a fancy upgrade” are long gone. Baffle systems and floating linear wood systems over exposed ceilings are among the products expected now, not only for noise dampening properties but also for esthetics.
Specialty ceilings are not new in office lobbies and some amenity spaces, but increasingly owners want bold design statements over their heads in other tenant spaces. Other industries are also making the shift. “One of our current projects at the Grant Cancer Center not only has lit and unlit baffles in the waiting area,” Staten says, “but it also has linear wood ceilings above the linear accelerators and metal ceiling tiles that have a wood-look finish above the CT scan.”
A Growing Market
Just how fast is the specialty ceiling market growing? Staten says Compass installed its first wood ceiling system at the headquarters of Alliance Data Systems in Columbus less than 10 years ago. “Now we’re seeing more office spaces with exposed decks, and then we add baffles or clouds to make a much more interesting space than you ever got with grid and tile,” she says.
Compass’s largest linear wood ceiling was 7,900 square feet for DHL’s headquarters in 2019. It was the first time the contractor installed felt baffles that attach to Unistrut. Its first baffle job “of any significance” was for Root Insurance in 2019.
The specialty market has been especially promising in the past two or so years, Staten says, noting the company “has probably installed six different baffles from six different manufacturers in that time.”
Staten’s favorite wood ceiling job was for the headquarters of Big Lots, a major online retailer. Completed in 2017, it features 7,200 square feet of linear wood ceilings and a 600-square-foot wood baffle system in the elevator lobby. She nicknamed the ceiling “the mermaid” because of its unusual form.
A 2,800-square-foot ceiling space in the building’s cafe was a tricky linear wood installation. While the architect wanted the wood on the face of a radius soffit to transition to a linear wood ceiling, the manufacturer had other ideas. Neither had “a workable solution” for the soffit to ceiling transition. The estimator explains, “We ended up doing the radius soffit out of metal studs and drywall. It was not only the first time we installed a linear wood ceiling in a shape other than a rectangle, but it was on a radius.”
Among its current contracts are a hotel and an office building at Scioto Peninsula, a 26-acre phased development by The Daimler Group in downtown Columbus. Two of the office tenant ceilings will feature panels designed to look like water vapor trails left in the sky by airplanes. Baffles will also be installed in a Unistrut frame. “All the spaces in the building are probably going to tap into this higher end look,” Staten says.
As with many construction companies, the pandemic presented Compass with a number of challenges. At the height of COVID-19, the contractor installed 9,000 square feet of colored ceiling tile for the Northwest Bible Church’s sanctuary. But there was a problem: The job didn’t go smoothly because the color of the tiles wasn’t consistent.
Staten explains: “The problem was that the tiles were shipped from Poland and had a 12-week lead time. We had to remove the tile, reorder and do the reinstall over carpet and church pews. The whole process took eight months.”
On tap for Compass is one project that will feature 145 4×8 acoustic panels for the Big Lots presentation studio. “They will be attached to the deck with high-strength magnets,” Staten says.
Compass is bidding on a job for Lincoln Construction’s 280,000-square-foot addition to Simpson Strong-Tie. The contract will require 60 15-foot long baffles. Unfamiliar with the baffle system, Staten says Compass will tread carefully because “there can be pitfalls you don’t think about until you actually work with a new product.”
Another challenge is obtaining the needed materials. Staten says there is a range in material delivery times, from a few weeks to a few months. “You have to pay extra attention to quotes you receive and make note of when the manufacturer says that lead time begins because it often is not when the order is placed,” Staten says. Furthermore, if the architect requests that the contractor do additional measurements or color matching, delivery times can increase.
But even when a system arrives, it can take time to unpack and sort out. “Some wood packaged for linear ceilings can take someone here days just to unpack. Years ago we had a project with a chrome ceiling grid, and I spent hours out there onsite just pulling off the protective film so it could be installed.”
There are other hurdles on site. “You need to figure out how difficult a product is to cut and what to cut it with,” Staten says. How light fixtures or diffusers fit and whether you need to order custom fixtures sizes are examples of issues “that can gobble up your profit if you are not careful,” Staten says, adding that manufacturer-produced videos on installations are often vital and frequently accessible on YouTube.
The Installer’s Perspective
Compass, which has an office staff of four and field crews of up to 50, relies on two experienced installers for most of its speciality ceilings. One of those installers is carpenter Dave Chafin, who says that ever-tight deadlines with never seen before products are common.
Baffle systems specified in different forms or shapes are examples. “You have to be dead on with them so you strike everything on the floor, making sure you account for hanging lights, diffusers plus all the height issues with sprinkler heads …. There are a lot of things you have to be aware of,” he says.
Wood ceilings, Chafin adds, can be labor intensive. One issue can be thickness variations in the wood sticks. That requires tweaking in the field to achieve a uniform look. Lighting and HVAC can also interfere with the level of a floating wood ceiling. “It might mean waiting for trades to sort it out, which can add a time to the project,” Chafin says.
Chafin works with Compass carpenter Kevin Thompson on specialty ceiling systems. The two have more than 70 years of installation experience at Compass.
Thompson says one challenging job has been at the 82,000-square-foot Orthopedic ONE medical care facility. There the installers put up 700 baffles. The medical facility also called for 1,500 square feet of a linear wood grille ceiling.
The baffles are shaped something like corrugated roof decking. “We had to shoot the cables up to be dead on. It took me three days just to put all the lines on the floor and two more days to put the cables up,” says Thompson, adding that the coordination between the mechanical and electrical trades was paramount. “A lot of time we have to work weekends on these jobs when there are no trades on site.”
While on most jobs Chafin and Thompson work alone, on large jobs the two will use a third installer to help with cutting, chalk lines and wire installs.
Baffles are generally not difficult to install, but linear wood ceilings can present challenges, especially if they are done “one stick at a time,” says Staten.
Friends with the Architect
Many of the office projects Compass does in Columbus are designs by architectural firm Moody Nolan. The relationship between the two goes back more than 20 years.
On contracts at the headquarters of both Alliance Data and DHL, Compass was the sub and Moody Nolan was the project architect. On both jobs Compass approached the architect with “quality specialty ceilings that also were value driven so we could do more of these ceilings for budget,” says Craig Rutkowski, principal and project manager with Moody Nolan.
Back-and-forth discussions between the two companies during a contract are not new. “They will give us real quality feedback on costs and different options like good, better, best approaches to a solution.”
An example is Orthopedic ONE, which has large areas of exposed ceilings, Rutkowski says. “The good thing about it is we have conversations with them early, not at the end of the process.”
The architect points out that while non-traditional lay-in ceilings installed in lobbies and amenity spaces in office buildings are not a new trend, “a little shift” in the market over the past 10 years is that more clients want exposed ceilings. To deal with the associated sound attenuation issues, such specialty products as acoustical baffles or clouds are specified.
He says there is also a demand for wood baffles and wood linear ceilings largely because they “warm up” a space.
Staten says beyond its established relationships with architects such as Moody Nolan and Mode Architects, it also works closely with a few major construction managers and developers in Columbus. The Daimler Group is a case in point.
“We have been building beautiful buildings with them for a long time. If specialty ceilings are the direction Daimler’s clients want to go, then we want to be the ones installing them,” Staten says.
Don Procter is a freelance writer in Ontario.