Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry Logo


So much acoustic ceiling is flat, white-side-down commodity board that the
only challenge installation presents is not breaking one’s jaw yawning. But
every now and then, an architect is given free rein and the fun begins. After interviewing many contractors around the country, we selected those jobs that were a cut above the rest, either because they presented an unusual challenge or because they looked spectacular when done.

Brian Whipple of Interior Systems, Inc. in Boise, Idaho, had a number of
interesting projects come his way, including a large church auditorium that
won some awards. “We had to apply 12-by-12 tiles over drywall throughout
the ceiling of the auditorium. We used steel frame and bent the drywall compponents to the curve of the barrel ceiling, the radius of which was large enough to then place the glued tiles on the drywall.

“Another job at the recreation facility at the Boise State University involved a combination of different types of ceilings: fancy wood panels in an acoustical type system, as well as perforated metals and fiber glass with insulation behind them.

“The airport terminal in Boise, however, has the most spectacular ceilings in the area, with all sorts of curves and
radius conditions. There is more radius
work on this job than we have ever seen,
and it’s been keeping the track-bending
tool busy non-stop, forming all the
radius steel studs. We are using a fine
line ceiling grid with a slotted channel
in it that is very challenging to make
look straight, and installing high-end
ceiling tiles and metallic ceiling finishes.

“The ticketing area has an almost S-shaped
ceiling 50 feet high, made out of
metallic ceiling tiles with insulation
above them. We are using long strips
rather than tiles, somewhat customized,
as the trusses that carry the load of the
roof stick through below the ceiling
material, and bracing goes back through
it to the roof deck. So we have made
shop drawings to interface with the
structural members.

“This airport is such a high profile project,
$6 million being spent on ceilings
alone, with millions of people seeing it
over many years—that we want to make
sure we do it right. It’s primarily an issue
of craftsmanship, but a 2.5 year project
in multiple phases to replace the existing
and working airport facilities, with the
added security concerns since 9/11,
means the real challenge is not so much
technical, as dealing with a coordination

“We just finished a job at the State Capitol,”
states Marshall Quirk of AG Building
Specialists in Baton Rouge, La.,
“where the plaster walls, ceiling and
wooden floors made it impossible to
hear a speaker in a nearby room. We
installed 3.5-foot strips of Whisper Wall
fabric panels across the barrel ceiling and
down the walls. The l-inch core board
with plastic around the perimeter
worked very well, providing a 90 NRC.”

Dennis McCarthy of Raymond Interior
Systems in Orange, Calif., reports
that they “installed two different grid
systems for Apple computer stores: a
Chicago 650 Series and underneath
that, a Gordon grid system with a customized channel system that integrated
all the lighting and HVAC into the
channel system itself Developed by the
George Family in Northern California
and custom made for Apple, the NewMat
fabric-wrapped acoustical panels
have a very clean and distinguished look
and very exacting dimensions. The
framing has to be precise because the tolerances
are so small, one has to start over
if one misses.”


Gary Alley’s company in Oswego, Ill.,
completed a job involving (USG’s)
COMPASSO. “We did different levels of
COMPASSO ceilings recently, with Wire
Works that look like pieces of wire in an
egg crate, for All State Insurance Company,
COMPASSO makes beautiful ceilings
but because it is so high end, it has
to be spec’d—you can’t sell it. As a result,
even though it is not hard to put up,
there is a learning curve for the guys that
they pretty well get through by the end
of the job, but then it’s another year
before the next COMPASSO job, and they
start at the bottom of the learning curve

“The main problem, though, is taking
COMPASSO from the architectural/design
stage to the installation stage, as you
have to order your COMPASSO, bent to
the proper radiuses, and there’s a two to
four-week lead time. Then there’s the
problem that you order from the drawings
and when you get to the site, the
building doesn’t quite match the drawing.
When designers spec these ceilings
with different levels and curves and
shapes, their idea of where it should
come off a corner, for instance, doesn’t
always work in reality. It’s not a major
issue, just a minor setback.

“Lastly, the nature of COMPASSO, with
all the curves and the geometric shapes
it is capable of, inspires architects to
draw S-curves and circles, which are very
labor intensive to install. Until you have
done a few such jobs, it is really hard to
price the labor accurately.”

High Drama in the Theaters

Theaters are not that complex according
to some, the main problem being negotiating
the tiered steps and rebuilding the
scaffolding each time. Shawn Greene of
Custom Ceilings in Kirkland, Wash.,
had an interesting variation on the scaffolding
problem when he was half way
through removing the old Tectum ceiling
in the Seattle Opera House, and he
came to work one day to find the seats
had been reinstalled. “We put the ceiling
back where we could, but because the
ceiling is so high up, you can’t see the
ceiling is missing. As the saying goes,
‘The higher the job, the better it looks.”’
Unless the patrons happen to turn their
opera glasses skyward, that is.

Auditoriums sometimes follow the
same, sloped construction as theaters,
and Jeffrey Clayes says Olympic Wall
Systems has been busy building auditoriums
in and around Des Moines, Iowa.
“The auditorium in the Wells Fargo
Financial building in Des Moines
required a suspended acoustical ceiling
and wall panels that were pitched to follow
the slope. One row at one elevation,
stepped up 6 or 8 inches to the next row,
and so on from one end to the other,
and all on a radius. We used a rolling
tower scaffold and set up a laser at the
lowest point of the ceiling and began
laying our panels, suspended by wire
hangers from an exposed deck that we
had painted black. We also put kickers
into the deck to hold it into place, and
then used a clip that we put in the center
of the panel. The panels had metal
inserts that we screwed strongbacks into,
to keep the panels together the tiles
were free flowing with nothing around
them. The front portion had different sized
panels in a half moon shape tied
together above the projection screen,
which itself was a plaster wall we created.
Then the ceiling had diffusers, lights
and sprinkler heads pre-cut in them, so
it was a busy ceiling.

“We are doing another auditorium for a
cancer center, with suspended acoustical
ceiling clouds that follow the pitch of
the auditorium, on a radius, and with
some interesting wall panels.

“Then there is the auditorium we did
for a hospital—same radius spec but
even more difficult because we had set
dimensions to follow since the architect
wanted a certain dimension to be adhered
to at the end of each pod of suspended
acoustical panels. But as anyone
knows who has worked with acoustic
panels, things grow as you go. I don’t
think architects understand this,
though. We had to crank the specs
down to 1/32 of an inch, which was
interesting considering the radius, suspended
and stepped-up nature of the
project. But even if you have a tolerance
of a 32nd of an inch, when the two
materials come together, they tend to
build up, and each row becomes longer
as you go down it.”

When Hard Isn’t

David Williams says Kite of Indianapolis
installed vaulted acoustic ceilings in
one building, “the challenge being to some
extent that they were vaulted, but the bigger challenge was making sure we
installed them properly the first time, because the materials were so expensive.

The library we worked on at the Glendale Mall was a 100,000-square-foot job
with a lot of curvature and shapes hanging down from the ceiling at different
elevations — sun, moon and stars. Nothing really challenging, as good carpenters,
of course, will figure out how to
handle even the most difficult of jobs
given half an hour to look it over.”

For Don Corsi’s company, Southern
Acoustics Inc. in Orlando, Fla., the
biggest challenge they face is being told
they have four days to put up 90,000
square feet of ceilings.

If skill makes any job easy, computers
have reduced the challenge even more,
as Jim Shumaker of Vernetti’s Mid-States
Construction Systems in Rockford,
Ill., points out. “We have a project
coming up that involves metal panel
ceilings with curvatures and different
elevations, but computer programs
make it easy. We submit what the architects
and engineers design to the manufacturer
and then install the prefab’d
panels using the shop drawings they
send us. It’s a cross between putting
together a jigsaw puzzle and coloring by

Not everyone has it so easy, however.
Kurt Tusler of St. Charles Acoustics in
St. Louis, Mo., had to “put an acoustic
ceiling into a geodesic dome shaped like
the EPCOT ball, 45 feet above the deck
of a college auditorium. The ceiling followed
the form of the building and the
key challenge was that nothing fit. The
grid went from metal plate to metal
plate, and the tiles were all triangles that
had to be cut on site and attached with
bolts and rods, not wires.

“We also put a ceiling into a museum,
the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis,
using metal framed 4-by-14 panels prefab’d in Canada that could not be altered
when they arrived on site. So we measured
very precisely every room, many of which were around 25-by-100. We had
to know if a room was out of square by
even as little as 1/8 inch, for instance. We
spent a lot of time measuring—30 measurements
in each room that were triple checked. Despite only 8,000 square feet
of ceilings, we spent weeks on the measuring.
In the end, a couple of measurements
proved to be off—the architect
was extremely picky as 1/16th of an inch
was too far off for him and which we
were able to fur with a few minor cuts on
site, so it worked out well.”

From Coffee to Auschwitz

Another contractor with a selection of
unusual jobs is Shawn Greene of Custom
Ceilings in Kirkland, Wash. “One
retailer has ordered a 5,000-square-foot
ceiling for $40,000, 10 percent of which
is white-side-down tile, the rest being all
show, with extruded aluminum hanging
from arched ceilings. We simply consult
the manufacturer’s rep, obtain their cut
sheets and get their take on how the stuff
hangs together, work out how long it will
take to install an arch, etc. The biggest
barrier we face is that architects can make
things look great on paper, but putting
their creations in the air can get pretty
nasty. It’s hard to bid these accurately
because they create unforeseen problems,
so we always work closely with architects
to get them on the same page.

“In another unusual job, we are doing a
100,000-square-footer right now in
which we are taking out all the tile we
can salvage. Then the walls of the many
12-by-12 offices throughout the building
are cut out to 6 inches below our
grid, after which a Bobcat with jaws
comes in to flatten everything and
remove the mess. Then they unscrew the top track channel of the old wall that is
still attached to the grid, so they don’t tear up our ceiling grid, but that has not
worked out very well and we already see big extras coming on this job—$25,000
or so. So then we patch all the holes and
paint the scratches and put it all back
together. Why, you may ask, is the new
owner doing this? I understand that if
they cut all the walls out and don’t put
them back to structure, they receive a
huge tax break.”

“Another interesting project, although
not challenging, is working closely with
Starbucks to resolve the echo in their
stores. A lot of conversation goes on in
Starbucks stores as customers sip their
coffee, so we have talked them into
putting ceilings throughout each store,
not just over the backroom and areas
where they serve the coffee.

“LDS churches are another customer.
They spec out the most expensive tile I
have seen, USG’s glue-up GLACIER tile.
It is not mineral board but a rough, cast
tile with a unique look. I have been to
several plants and seen tiles being made.
Slurry comes down a drying belt and
they take a broom and sweep the slurry
so that it dries into a heavily grooved and
brittle form. You deal with enough of it,
and your hands turn into hamburgers if
you don’t wear gloves when installing it.

“We’ve also done some environmental
ceilings in what I call ‘Auschwitz,’ a
building where they test drugs on primates
brought in from China. The grid
is 1.5 inches wide with a gasket, and the
tile is a SHEETROCK board with a vinyl
facing that is scrubbable. You can buy it
gasketed, but we chose to buy it ungasketed
and set up an assembly line to gasket
the grid ourselves, because it fits
together a lot better that way. The wall
is also gasketed when you put on your
wall angle. Then you seal the wall angles
from behind with a caulk.

Jamie Harrison of Just Rite Acoustics in
Chicago mentioned a couple of jobs the
company lost money on, but that were
difficult to install and impressive when
done. “We installed acoustical wall panels
and baffles over a pool at Harper
Community College. There were two
challenges: the ceiling was 35 feet above
the deck, and the pool was an additional
15 feet down. It took a lot of scaffolding
and lifts to access the ceiling.
Secondly, we had to research extensively
to find what materials would not corrode
from the latent chlorine vapors. It
turned out that every piece of hardware
had to be stainless steel and the panels
needed to be polyester.

“The second job was at Arizona State
University with a ceiling made of clouds
that did not touch each other. One
cloud would be curved, which curve was
continued by the next cloud and so on.
It took a lot of layout time on the floor,
building it before putting it in the air
and then bracing and adjusting it.
“On another job, an auditorium for
Motorola, we installed the USG CELEBRATION
system, perforated metal with
sound absorbing material on the back.
It was extremely high and curved from
the stage, arching all the way to the rear.
Metal doesn’t lend itself to curves, so we
segmented and cut the grid at the joints.
We won an award for that one.”

While doing these kind of jobs is its own
reward in terms of added interest and
challenge, it’s always good for morale to
receive awards for them, too.

About the Author

Steven Ferry is a free-lance writer based
in Dunedin, Fla.

Browse Similar Articles

You May Also Like

The ceiling installations at Nurix Therapeutics is Marek’s best job ever. Preserving the artistry evident in the architect’s design proved enormously gratifying.
Rob Aird, C. Brent Allen, Lee Zaretzky, Davis Sprague and Travis Vap share a passion for transforming spaces and structures with an eye for craftsmanship, innovation and historical preservation. You’ll
An exterior photo of the Clovis Community Medical Center (Phase 3) Parex
We will spare you the details of how it was done, but we are happy to tell you about the outcome. This article brings you just some of the many