The Hidden Costs of Open Ceilings

While open ceilings have many benefits, costing less isn’t one of them.

Skender built out the second floor, a 38,000 SF space at 1330 W. Fulton Market to serve as its new headquarters – Image courtesy of Skender

Open ceilings are a signature element of most contemporary office designs because of the spaciousness and casual, cool vibe they add to a space. Many decision-makers also assume open ceilings are less expensive than drop ceiling because they use less materials, labor, and time. But, do those assumptions play out in reality?

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.

Unfortunately, those findings don’t give the full picture. Over the years, our experience has shown that open plenum ceilings have many benefits—but costing less isn’t one of them. It’s important to plan ahead for the unforeseen costs of open ceilings, which typically make them come in as more expensive, particularly over a building’s life cycle.

Full floor interior build-out of the corporate headquarters for Sprout Social, a social media management company  – Image courtesy of Skender

Deconstructed Look Takes A Lot of Construction

Open ceilings don’t require the new infrastructure that a suspended ceiling does, so it seems contradictory that they’d be more expensive. However, it’s not as simple as removing suspended ceiling tiles and walking away. Existing infrastructure that’s been hiding behind suspended ceilings is often unsightly, requiring major work to make it attractive to employees or customers.

For example, those exposed ducts seen in modern offices are often not original to the buildings they’re in. Old ductwork is typically blocky, dirty, oily and generally not aesthetically pleasing. Round or oval ductwork, as we used in the build-out for Glassdoor’s new headquarters, delivers a more “finished” look, but is significantly more expensive.

In addition to swapping unsightly ducts, space users want everything painted from the exposed ceiling to the ductwork and plumbing—a job that’s far more complicated than simply painting walls. This also helps tie together what you see when you look up with the color scheme, décor, and branding choices on the floor. In other words, the casual look of an open plenum is actually the result of a lot of skilled labor.

In Short: Skilled Labor Shortage Affects Ceiling Work, Too

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, in some cases, but any savings is more than offset by the cost of labor-intensive tasks required for open plenum.

For instance, added labor-intensive tasks 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.

Flagship tech incubator space for Capital One. Project features high- end finishes including advanced audiovisual systems, stacking glass walled conference rooms, large sliding metal doors as a showcase space, glass/steel huddle rooms, indoor terrace, lounge and stage – Image courtesy of Skender

For our work on Capital One’s tech incubator space in Chicago, ductwork, electrical conduits, and other infrastructure were all seamlessly integrated so the ceilings complemented the colorful, yet sleek space.

Can You Hear Me Now? Sound Considerations of Open Ceilings

Another invisible, but inevitable, cost in open plenum plans is the 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 exposed ceilings –and the cement floors and glass walls they’re often coupled with – create an echo chamber. And, as people raise their voices louder to be heard over the ambient noise, the noise is amplified. White noise systems can help, but some people find the white noise itself to be disruptive.

If designers and construction firms don’t plan together to address sound issues, employee productivity, privacy and job satisfaction can suffer. For workplaces in which people must handle sensitive information, conduct frequent client calls, or collaborate closely with their colleagues, a noisy workplace is an ineffective one – and can create costly mistakes.

Two-floor interior build out for tech firm Echo Global Logistics. Project included open office for more than 1,000 employees, graphic panel murals, oversized communicating stair, elevated café with video wall, exposed concrete structure and custom millwork bar  – Image courtesy of Skender

Solutions for noise problems in open plenum plans add to renovation bottom line. Office users may install acoustical panels directly onto the deck, or suspend baffles to absorb sound in critical areas. Spray-on acoustical material applied to the ceiling’s hard, reflective surfaces is another solution. These products soften the surfaces to absorb some of the noise, and typically have other benefits such as thermal insulation and fire protection. Spray-on solutions also cost less than panels or baffles, however, no work can be done in the space while the spray-on material is being applied. This adds seven to 10 days to the construction schedule, diminishing the savings.

Efficiency Over the Life of the Space

Even if open plenum ceilings can be installed cost-effectively, operational cost considerations can change the equation somewhat. Many planners and designers now consider 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 five-city CISCA study previously mentioned noted that energy costs were found to be lower in suspended ceilings than in open plenum ceilings, ranging from 9 percent to 10.3 percent energy savings in offices. In addition, CISCA noted that open ceilings required frequent cleaning and periodic repainting that’s unnecessary with suspended ceilings. The study concluded that when you consider both first-time and operating costs, suspended ceilings are extremely cost effective.

Open Ceilings Aren’t Going Anywhere, So Plan Ahead

All things considered, the additional cost of open plenum ceilings shouldn’t be a deal-breaker. Most companies that are investing in new or renovated offices will want the hip look and blank slate that open ceilings provide. And, designers’ primary goal is to create a space that’s appealing and productive for the employees who use it; incurring an incrementally higher cost structure is a secondary concern.

Interior office build-out for online payment technology firm Braintree at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago, IL. Includes conference rooms, open plan areas, demonstration area, storage rooms, break rooms and IDF/server rooms – Image courtesy of Skender

Designs teams and their clients who are getting ready to build out space should be aware of the true cost of different alternatives to avoid unexpected budget blows. Informal, exposed ceilings may seem less expensive than suspended ceilings—but reality is often quite different. Make sure to account for added materials, added labor, and long-term efficiency when you’re pricing out your project.

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  • I couldn’t agree more with this article. I don’t think that open ceilings are worth the trouble. It’s much better for a company to think ahead and concentrate on the employees’ productivity. Our company went for acoustical panels mentioned in the text and it was definitely worth it. We had these beautiful timber slats installed and it’s been a great change for the better. The office looks much more stylish and the noise reduction is noticeable.

  • I appreciate everything in this article except for “White Noise” being disruptive or non-effective.
    Sound Masking (which is white noise essentially) can be very effective if tuned and placed properly in an open ceiling space.

  • Thanks for pointing out that open ceilings are less costly. Though that is true many still prefer to have decent ceilings that everyone will admire looking up to. Since we have a house remodeling due to the recent typhoon that hit our place, we are planning to come up with ceilings that will make us look at peace and secure when looking above. However, we have to make sure what we will choose is within our budget and preference.

  • You make a good point that the existing infrastructure that is hidden behind the drop ceiling is exposed by open ones, and that costs a lot to fix up and look nice. I can imagine that if I was a restaurant of the business owner that I would want to make things easier and go with a nice drop ceiling. I had no idea that an open ceiling could have so many expenses!

  • Open ceilings are seen everywhere and will continue for the near future .
    The costs are irrelevant to most clients if they want this look , We as an acoustics company always look at the reverb issues these ceilings cause and advise on ceiling rafts or baffles across the area. So often the product gets value engineered out as not everyone understands that it is a requirement not a decorative piece. The client moves into there new space and the reverb is terrible.
    The answer is keep the look, it does look great but leave the acoustic panels in the design and make sure they stay there to the end. These can add to the design as well, available in so many shapes sizes and colours . Soundmasking is also an option but this is a harder sell to clients as it is a lot harder to explain and convince them of the end result and as mentioned some people literally get annoyed by the sound it makes. Tuning the system and setting the zones correctly are a massive part of getting the system working as it should and will bother people less if set right. Gradual increase in volume also helps with the introduction of Sound masking.

  • With materials and labor costs for cracked ceiling tiles and shifting grids needing to be replaced the long term ROI must be 3 years or under in a large ( over 500,000 sq ft.) commercial building . It’s a win win.

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