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Flying High, Plumbing The Depths

The flat acoustic ceilings above most people’s heads are what most folks installing ceilings work on most days. But every now and then, a more challenging job comes along to spike their interest. In search of these, and solutions to any problems they may have run into, we surveyed a couple of dozen contractors around the country for the jobs that they remember best.

For those working in theaters, it’s not the ceiling that’s the problem, but the floor, as Pat Hendricks, project manager/estimator at Acoustical Contractors and Drywall Services, Inc. in Lakewood, Colo., explains. “In these new state-of-the-art theaters, the stadium seating results in steeply sloping ceilings and floors. We use $40,000 scissor lifts, and design and
build ramps with two-by-sixes, which we
drive the lifts onto.”

James Lynn, estimator at Ware Paint and
Drywall, Waycross, Ga., says they “solved
the slope difficulty while working on
ceilings 30 feet up, by building scaffolding
and then putting jacks under it. It
then took several guys quite some time
to disassemble it and move it over.”

Working Together

Hendricks goes on to say that, no matter
what the technical difficulties, “the
real challenge and need is to coordinate
with other trades-the electricians, the
tinners, the ceiling people, the drywall
people, as we are at the very end of the
schedule and count on the other trades
to stay on schedule.”

Dan Cassidy, vice president of Cassidy
Bros, Rosemont, Ill., agrees that the key
skill isn’t in dealing with “with lots of
soffits and islands of acoustic ceilings at
heights of 30 feet. It’s the question of

Ernie Stocks, estimator/project manager in Midwest Drywall Company,
Wichita, Kan., a contractor that handles over a
million square feet of acoustical ceiling a
year, has the same perspective. Whether
it is installing the 16 acres of acoustical
ceiling at the Mail Distribution Center in
Memphis, Tenn., or seeing to the Venetian® Las Vegas, or even dealing with the
formidable ceiling tasks presented by the
Royal Caribbean Telemarketing Center
in Wichita, “We hardly run into anything
that is a real challenge as far as the installation
goes. With acoustical ceilings, the
challenge is coordination with sprinkler,
communication, computer, electrical,
plumber and mechanical contractors. Getting There Is Half the Fun
They’re all working overhead and we can’t
do anything until they are all done. Hospitals
are usually the most difficult, as
they usually have a multitude of different
rooms requiring several different types of
acoustical ceiling, and there is always a lot
that goes in overhead.”

Having said that, Stocks did allow that
the first time they used USG’s Compasso™ suspension trim system, a specialty
grid and edge system with hanging
clouds of acoustical that don’t build clear
to the wall, it was a challenge, but after
that, it presented no problem. “It’s not
rocket science, but to get quality work,
you have to have someone who knows
what they are doing, especially if you
want everything to fit right and level and
hang correctly so it will stay in place.”

Getting There Is Half the Fun

“Trained installers and attention to
detail allow us to pull off any job,” states
Jeremy Harnish, vice president of William E. Harnish
Acoustical in Redforth Township, Mich. “The only time
installation becomes difficult in terms of the product being
used, is when it is a new or seldom-used product. USG’s Curvatura,
for instance, or Compasso, radiused trim or ceilings
that undulate: the skill is in placing it, making sure all the
control lines and laser levels are accurate. Apart from that, the
challenge isn’t so much in putting up the ceiling, but in coordination
with other contractors, and more than anything else,
getting to the ceiling in the first place.

“At a First Baptist Church, we had to use scaffolding and scissor
lifts to reach the high levels needed to install ceiling clouds
at multiple angles and directions. In Canton, Mich., the rectangular
Yazaki, NA building has a 50-foot high atrium down
the center, with a boat suspended in it that serves as a technical
library-the company owner was a yacht racing enthusiast.
This boat is 80 feet long by 40 feet wide, suspended
from the second and third levels and accessed from those
floors by catwalks. Placing the ceiling above this boat required
subcontractors to design a unique rolling scaffolding system
that was suspended across the 25-foot-wide atrium from
walkway to walkway, and even though we had half a million
square feet of tricky linear metal and acoustical ceiling to put
up, the real challenge was access.”

No doubt the Performance Contracting folks in Las Vegas,
Nev., had a similar problem when installing the ceiling in the
Aladdin Theater, 120 feet above the floor.

From a Tall Story to a Fishy One

While getting there was also a challenge for their colleagues
in Anaheim, Calif., working at the circular Nikken building,
it was not the only one they faced. As PCI Advanced
Estimator Patty Quijaso explains, “This was an extremely
cumbersome job. We were creating a compounding curving
acoustical metal ceiling 50 feet in the air with every point having
a different elevation. Hitting several hundred elevation
points and having each work with the adjacent surface-the
panels had a continuous pattern that flowed from one to the
next-was quite a challenge. We did some templates, laid
everything out on the ground, and then transferred up to the

“We used three booms to access the ceiling, working in unison
to hang the suspension system, starting at one point and
progressing out from there so as to tie in the ceiling. When
you are that high up, of course, the booms wave around a lot,
so coordinating motions and fixing
these unwieldy and heavy 8-by-4, torsion-
spring snap-in panels was not only
challenging but tiring—like a guy with
big fingers trying to thread a needle
while doing 200 knee bends. Every single
panel and grid part was numbered
and was not interchangeable—it had
exactly one place to go, like a jigsaw puzzle.
If any panel was damaged, it had to
be retooled. In the end, we had all the
pieces we needed and no more, and that
was extremely satisfying and relieving.
This ceiling is really a piece of art.”

Giles Turgeon, president of Green
Mountain Drywall Company in Wallingford,
Vt., also laid out a template on
the floor to get the tricky rounds and
curves of the ceiling at the Orvis office
building. His men cut and lifted up a
plywood template and nailed it in place
so the owner could confirm the radius
was as he had envisioned it. They then
built the ceiling around it and removed
the template. Turgeon’s advice for anyone
attempting complex jobs: “Find
someone who is really experienced in
acoustic ceilings, or you’ll go through a
lot of materials and waste a lot of time.”

Speaking of curves, Duane Christensen,
marketing manager at Cascade Acoustics
in Tualatin, Ore., reports that they used
complex curved wall and ceiling elements,
cut from flat stock and then welded
together, to create a tiered effect that
gave the illusion of descending into the
ocean depths to view the marine life at
the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

In addition, “We also did a kite, like a
mobile, using acoustic panels and fabric
for a large atrium in a school to
resolve sound issues,” Christensen said.

Flying High

Heading up rather than down, Brett
Petillo, senior estimator/project manager
at Performance Contracting in Tempe,
Ariz., had a difficult job recently at the
America West Flight Training Center
where flight simulators are used.

“The main feature of the building is
designed to look like an airplane wing
extending through the building core
when one views it from, the side. It’s a 35
by 300-foot glass aircraft wing that is 35
feet in the air. The interior portion is a
curved metal ceiling that runs right up
into the glass, and the exterior portion
continues on the outside and curves
around the fascia of the building.

“The key challenges were handling 98-
pound panels at that height, and coordinating with the exterior contractor to
line up all the seams along the entire
length of the building. There was a 6-
inch reveal on one side, so we had one
end floating. In addition, the core narrows,
so we had to keep this curved ceiling
level and everything running together,
while the width is narrowing 10 feet
from one end to the other. We used a
torsion spring system; every 8 feet there
were 4-foot Ts, and we field-cut all the
perimeter panels. I was sweating then,
but I am sleeping better now. In actual working off lifts, up and down, up and
fact, the project only took 160 man-days, because once we had the sytem down, it was a real simple installation- apart from being 35 feet in the air and
working off lifts, up and down, up and down, as there was only so much material we could carry up each time.

“From the GC standpoint, this was the
best-run job I have ever been on. A real
coordinated effort, so we ran into very
few problems. My advice is to get your
material on site early, too. We had our
material in early and found the color was
wrong, but we still had time to return
the materials, have them repainted and
back to us before the job began.

In another job at a data center for
Charles Schwab, the command center
had five different levels, requiring a gradual
drop of the acoustical ceiling.

Says Petillo, “We used a Compasso trim
around the perimeters so as to form light
coves, and everything was curved. This
created a set of problems, kicking and
bracing off everything so we didn’t allow
any movement in the ceiling. It took
time from a labor standpoint, but it provided
a real neat effect. It also turned out
much cheaper to make this Compasso
light cove than to make drywall soffits.”

For Those Who Know Where They Are Going

“Compasso” seems to be the word on the
lips of many when it comes to challenging
(but rewarding) systems to install.
John Eliason, president of E&K in
Omaha, Neb., noted that “curves, slopes
and radiuses are more challenging, obviously,
but vaulted, arched acoustical ceilings
are lot more interesting and fun to
do, especially given the variety of patterns
and brands on the market.

“Compasso trim, with ceilings hanging
below another ceiling, are a definite
challenge. We did the clubhouse of a
fancy apartment complex with a regular
white grid ceiling on the top level, and
below, little modules of different-colored
cloud ceiling grid systems hanging below
each other at different angles and
overlapping, suspended by hanger wires
painted black.

“The challenge, of course, is making
sure that everything is hanging level and
true. Having put one up, it’s hard to
position one below it without disturbing
the one above. A bit like building an
upside-down house of cards. With the
aluminum Compasso trim, also, we
have to use a miter box with a special
blade to cut those pieces so they don’t
become all frayed out, and file them if
they do.

“One point to keep in mind with Compasso,
though, is to make sure during
the bidding that you allow for the added
labor involved-it’s hard when estimating on products you don’t use everyday.
You have to figure out what one’s best
mechanic could do in a day and do it on
a man-day basis, rather than dollar-per foot.
It can take as much as five times as
long to do these cloud ceilings, compared
to flat acoustic ceilings. There may
not be much footage or volume of materials
for these jobs, but there’s a lot of
thought process, planning, organizing
and layout and timing.”

Frank Lauria, owner of FL Drywall in
Tampa, Fla., handles the trickier radiuses
and arches by ordering custom trim
from the factory. After almost three
decades in the construction business, he
doesn’t find much that challenges his

“We did a ceiling once that looked just
like a flashlight cut lengthwise. We made
the ceiling parts all on site—figuring the
pi times radius squared and all that fancy
stuff on the calculator—and then
making a jig to make the parts. We don’t
come across that every day, though. Disney
comes up with some of the weirdest
stuff, too. In the early 1980s, we suspended
a Goofy from the ceiling in a
boat tunnel with #12 hanger wire.”

A Barrel of Laughs

John Glass, exec vice president at Joe
Banks Drywall in Mangham, La., has
seen his share of tricky jobs, too. Take the
Century Telephone building in Monroe,
La., installing a concealed grid system
with approximately 4-by-8 panels in various
shapes that were spring-locked from
the topside. It took a lot of measuring
and shop drawings to work with the zero
tolerances of the recessed grid.

Or the lecture room that required hanging
various 4-by-8 panels 15 feet from
the ceiling, in an exact location and tilted
at a certain angle, to deflect and
absorb sound in an oval lecture room.
But none were as difficult as a barrel
vault, about which Glass says, “If you
want to known how challenging that
was, I wouldn’t do that one again! The
problem was getting the acoustical panels
to conform to the radius and remain
attached to the substrate. We glued and
clipped it, trying to adhere something
that is all concealed attachment, and it
kept falling on our heads. We fixed it in
the end by working at it like dogs, with
a lot of glue and clips, bracing it from
the bottom and crossing our fingers. Its
fighting gravity all the way, but it’s still
standing, I am glad to say.”

Rob Scarpitta of Performance Contracting
in Las Vegas, Nev., agrees that
“barrel vaults are tough. We did a lobby
at a rec center with wave ceilings, all
curved grid and linear metal. On the
Palms Hotel job, we used stainless steel
mirror finish, torsion-spring panels with
curved perimeters. When you look up,
you see a full vault and then two eyelids,
with translucent windows that break the
main field. The transition and the panels
between the two eyelids are compound
mitered into each other—where
the linear metal meets. It was a tricky job
but a nice finish—in more ways than
one, presumably.

Lastly, we turn to Dexter Knight, senior
vice president of Center Brothers in
Atlanta, for a job that comes along only
once in a lifetime-to the lucky few.

The opportunity to build an Olympic
stadium—”an extremely large job with
an extremely short time frame,” he
assures us. “It took a small truck to deliver
all the drawings and specification
books. By the time we were allowed in,
a lot of the time frame had been used
up. It was not the usual working environment,
either, as we had bomb scares,
bomb threats, and all kinds of interesting
things, such as the president of the
United States turning up to walk
through while we were working. We also
had to work on plans and on site with
no less than four architectural firms. It
took some coordination and persistence
to get them all to agree and sign off on

Gene McMichen, who has been with
Center Brothers for more than three
decades, was their point man on the job.
He reports, “We used six different ceiling
systems on an area exceeding a quarter
of a million square feet. The lower
level was very high, and we could not
attach the hanger wires wherever we
wanted because some of the areas were
underneath seats. The wires ranged in
length, therefore, from 2 to 30 feet. The
public areas were very ‘Plain Jane,’ but
in the box areas, we installed expensive
custom-made tiles with aluminum trims
and reveal moldings. We jumped up and
down about installing tiles outside until
the manufacturer, Armstrong, assured us
that the RH 90s would work fine. We
had to clip them into place because of
the wind conditions.”

Echoing many of his fellow contractors,
McMichen adds, “Coordination between
the contractor and the subcontractors
was a must on this project
because of all the levels and sectors that
had totally different designs and problems.
The special radios that we were all
required to buy, kept everyone in

Summarizing that feeling contractors
may experience after completing one of
those extra-special pieces, McMichin
wraps up with these words:
“I have always been proud to tell people
that I work in construction . . . . The best
movie for some people is played each
day in the basement of the Great Arch
Facility in St. Louis, MO. The movie
shows the heart, pride and character that
construction workers feel across this
nation each day . . . . My dream started
with the Olympic Stadium.”

Here’s to all those dreams still to be

About the Author

Steven Ferry is a free-lance writer for the
construction industry. He is based in
Clearwater, Fla.

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