Integrating Lighting into Specialty Ceilings

by arslan_ahmed | November 21, 2022 9:00 am

[1]By Star Davis

Over the past years, lighting has become more front-and-centre in the early stages of architectural design—and for a good reason. When integrating lighting into standard ceiling solutions, such as grid, drywall, and open-to-structure ceilings, traditional luminaire form factors, including troffers, downlights, recessed linear, and suspended products, are common and relatively straightforward to integrate. However, as specialty ceiling products have emerged, with often complex, three-dimensional, and organic form factors, so have the challenges associated with the design and installation of integrated, functional luminaire solutions.

Lighting designers and electrical engineers are now engaging earlier in the design phase of projects, as luminaire solutions fitting these specialty ceilings require product attributes outside of traditional technical lighting requirements, including textiles, acoustic characteristics, form factors, and the ability to seamlessly integrate with the chosen specialty ceiling design.

Additionally, luminaire manufacturers, due to the esthetic and technical challenges associated with integrated systems, are developing products able to fit better in these emerging specialty ceiling systems and, in some cases, are even pursuing their own offering of integrated specialty lighting and ceiling solutions.

As the market continues to demand more complex, parametric, heterogenous designs, the intense and iterative nature of the design process will require lighting and ceiling components to be designed cooperatively and interdependently to ensure the full system is delivered as intended.


The purpose of lighting—both natural and artificial—in the built space has always been to elevate the architectural environment, providing a level of functionality and visual comfort to space occupants, as well as enhancing unique and/or important attributes of the architectural design itself.

With traditional, homogenous ceiling planes, including drywall and grid, functional lighting could primarily be accomplished via recessed luminaires, offering high function without the mechanical elements of the luminaire visible in the ceiling. Therefore, the focus of the lighting designer and manufacturer could mainly be on lumen output, light quality, light direction, energy footprint, and glare control, while ensuring the luminaire hardware disappears above the ceiling plane. To assist contractors with the installation of luminaires and other critical ceiling components within the grid structure, many ceiling manufacturers with novel grid solutions are easily able to accommodate an array of lighting solutions. These technology zones enabled flexible placement of a variety of luminaire options, while eliminating much of the esthetic concerns and time associated with the installation process.

As the traditional grid ceilings began to disappear and open-to-structure space design gained popularity, suspended luminaire options garnered a greater market share. Not only did suspended luminaires add requirements and provide more opportunities for light output, such as bi-directional optics, they also became a more visible element in the space. As such, manufacturers increasingly focused on high-quality housing designs and streamlined suspension options.

Luminaire manufacturers and lighting designers also took advantage of this visual real estate to create interesting form factors and decorative housing designs, allowing for more than just the standard white good options for these
open environments.

In parallel, the movement away from the grid or drywall ceiling presented an opportunity for specialty ceiling designs. Initially, these open-to-structure ceilings presented several challenges relative to acoustics and esthetics. On the acoustics front, grid ceilings using acoustical ceiling tiles (ACT) help absorb sound waves emanating from the space and lower sound transmission between rooms. Eliminating ceilings results in increased reverberation and less comfortable acoustic environments for occupants.

Esthetically, mechanical and electrical hardware typically hidden above the enclosed ceiling, including electrical cabling and duct work, would now be exposed. The cost of cleaning up these elements through more organized layouts or painting can be very high. As a result of these open-to-structure problems, baffle arrays and acoustic clouds became more common, primarily to help dampen acoustic reverberation issues, but also to help block the view to the ceiling and house critical hardware, such as HVAC, sprinkler systems, luminaires,
or speakers.

Over the past several years, architects and ceiling manufacturers, much like their lighting counterparts, have viewed open ceilings as a blank canvas to innovate with creative ceiling forms and materials. Established manufacturers and emerging specialty ceiling companies have been experimenting with complex, multi-dimensional ceilings, leveraging new materials like felt, metal, perforated wood, and using computerized, algorithmic processes to deliver sophisticated and vibrant designs. As a result, the specialty ceiling category has seen a dramatic increase in market share relative to traditional ceiling types.

As great as this movement has been for interior architecture, the growing category of specialty ceilings has led to major challenges with integrating lighting solutions achieving the desired lighting functionality and a seamlessly integrated esthetic. Challenges along the design, specification, sourcing, and installation process include selecting the right form factors which will not disrupt the ceiling design, puzzle-piecing lighting and ceiling products, co-ordinating the appropriate textiles or finishes across products, determining the correct trade: the ceiling or the electrical contractor who is responsible for what component, and co-ordinating the activity at the job site accordingly.

Understanding how ceiling and lighting design can be a collaborative activity

As specialty ceilings—along with their most effective integrated lighting solutions—become more prevalent in architecture, the primary objective of the specifier, contractor and manufacturer communities will be to ensure a finished installed ceiling system achieves the right balance of lighting, acoustic, esthetic, and budgetary requirements. The more complex a ceiling system becomes, the more the elements of the system need to be designed together, and the more each stakeholder needs to be engaged to help achieve this balance. Today, the tools exist to enable this iterative, cooperative design, but the limitations of manufacturer standard products, along with the historical roles established for specifiers and contractors, make the co-ordination difficult.

Figure 1 A standard ceiling baffle system with the luminaires specified downstream. Photo from iStock.

To demonstrate, take the case of a basic linear felt baffle system. Traditionally, when baffle systems are implemented in a design, the interior architect defines the ceiling plane and specifies baffle spacing, height, material, and mounting methods among other attributes. Once the design is in place, the lighting designer or electrical engineer finds lighting solutions. A series of suspended cylinders or linear products are often specified between the baffles to achieve the task or general lighting levels required. This traditional approach leads to two fundamental problems.

First, the esthetic co-ordination between the baffles and luminaires is suboptimal, as the latter can be disruptive visually, both by forcing the luminaire to fit within the preset baffle spacing (Figure 1) and potentially projecting light onto the side of some baffles in the larger system. Second, if a design change occurs further downstream, say, if one determines a 450 mm (18 in.) on-centre spacing is required for the baffles instead of 300 mm (12 in.), or if an obstruction occurs on-site, the lighting will need to be repositioned or the layout will need to be re-done to accommodate the new baffle spacing and placement of the luminaires.

Figure 2 An esthetically integrated ceiling and luminaire baffle system specified together. Photo courtesy Focal Point.

A solution to this esthetic and co-ordination concern is what several manufacturers have tried to address in recent years: providing both the standard acoustic baffles and luminaires with a baffle housing. In this case, the baffle ceiling can be specified and iterated on, then the lighting designer can choose which baffles to light up. Co-ordinating the baffle system upfront, either from a single manufacturer or a partnership between ceiling and lighting providers, can ensure the textiles are batched together and matched, the acoustic design can be optimized, and the full system can be co-ordinated at the job site. The result is a much more esthetically pleasing and easy-to-install solution (Figure 2).

Of course, systems like these are tougher to pull apart, which can meet resistance from the ceiling and electrical contractor trades when it comes to bidding and product substitution. Ensuring the system is split between Division 09 for ceiling products and Division 26 for lighting products, as well as cross-referenced in each CSC MasterFormat division, is key for labour bidding and installation. The result of this additional effort—a fully co-ordinated, clean, and integrated specialty system with a single manufacturer—is valuable in maintaining the integrity of the design.

This example of designing and integrating a simple baffle system demonstrates the potential complexities which arise, and the thoughtfulness required when attempting to integrate lighting into a more complicated ceiling plane, like a multi-dimensional ceiling system, or even more aggressive ceiling system forms based on parametric design principles.

The future of lighting integration

Parametric design in architecture can be defined as the manipulation of geometric forms and elements through advanced computation, producing complicated architectural designs and structures. The philosophy associated with parametric design possess the following attributes:

These unique, heterogenous designs are making their way into interior architecture. Specialty ceiling manufacturers leverage tools such as Rhino 3D and ArchiCAD, among others, along with digital production capabilities, to deliver seemingly custom ceiling designs at scale. This movement in architecture is leading to brand-forward, natural-feeling spaces—and the momentum is not slowing down as system improvements are implemented and more competitors enter the arena.

Figure 3 A multi-dimensional ceiling plane with integrated lighting running perpendicular to the baffles. Photo courtesy Focal Point.

The challenge with these specialty ceiling systems, however, is with the interdependent and adaptive attributes of parametric design. Given how most architectural ceiling systems—outside of the true custom project designs—are made up of standard product puzzle pieces offered by lighting and ceiling manufacturers, it is difficult to realize an architectural designer’s unique vision at scale. Much like the previous baffle example, if design changes occur due to space variables, budgetary concerns, or other factors, even if the perfect design was specified, it is extremely difficult to modify said design without disrupting the component parts.

A potential solution to this design conundrum is working through a single manufacturer who can manage the seamless integration of both components, from the early stages of design through the design iterations occuring downstream. Manufacturers who develop their own integrated systems can parameterize the component products in a manner which adapts to the requirements of the space. For example, what if an interior architect specifies a complex, multi-dimensional ceiling array and desires to have linear lighting run perpendicular to the array (such as in Figure 3)?

Today, the architect would work with a specialty ceiling manufacturer to specify the array, with a lighting designer to determine placement of the luminaires, followed by a co-ordination with the ceiling manufacturer to accommodate the luminaire placement, followed by potential downstream iterations requiring collaboration between the ceiling and luminaire manufacturers, and/or the electrical and ceiling contractors. With a single manufacturer who has already pre-parameterized the product variables for both lighting and ceiling components via parametric design software, these components are already programmed to be interdependent.

Architects are able to design a ceiling array and lighting designers can determine lighting requirements and on-centre spacing of the luminaires, and the design will automatically adapt, as will all necessary deliverables, like shop drawings, reflected ceiling plans, Revit models, etc. Manufacturers who develop this capability to support the design community can add substantial value by reducing the time and cost associated with the iterative design process and ensuring the integrity of the design through to installation.

In addition to working with a single manufacturer, a closer collaboration between interior architect and lighting designer, and a better integration of lighting capabilities will be required to ensure technical project requirements are met. Lighting designers will benefit from educating themselves on the topic of holistic ceiling design, including textiles, acoustic properties, and integration points. Conversely, interior architects will want to select ceiling system platforms able to accommodate and adapt to other ceiling elements, ensuring the downstream process is clean once lighting is specified and integrated. From a specification standpoint, the integrity of the design is maintained if the design elements in the system are cross-referenced across Division 09 and Division 26, ensuring better co-ordination between electrical and ceiling contractors.

Figure 4 Integrating luminaire and ceiling products by leveraging the luminaire as the structure for the ceiling baffles. Photo courtesy Focal Point.

The benefit of working collaboratively upstream and/or with a single lighting and ceiling system manufacturer extends beyond the specification community into the contractor domain. Having lighting products designed to purposely fit into the ceiling array eliminates many of the potential design and installation issues experienced when working across manufacturers, and ensures the system is designed for installation, taking into account both the lighting and ceiling elements. Figure 4 is an example of an optimized integration, with the luminaire acting as the structure for the ceiling system, thus minimizing the number of hang points and streamlining the installation process.

Product bidding, sourcing, and timing to the job site are also more easily co-ordinated when working with one manufacturer. Concerns facing the contractor community include sorting out which contractor bids on what product and limited flexibility to substitute products when such an integrated system is specified.


Lighting design for an architectural project has traditionally happened after the ceiling is specified. As specialty ceilings have gained more market traction and ceiling designs have become more complex in nature, significant benefits can be derived from a more collaborative, interdependent design approach. This approach can be accomplished most effectively through working with a single manufacturer, as the individual lighting and ceiling components can be parameterized in a way to ensure relatively quick, seamless designs and avoid negative effects of iterative, downstream design changes.

Parametric design platforms can help automate and streamline the design and production processes. Collaboration across specifiers, namely lighting designers, interior architects, acousticians, and interior designers will ensure the appropriate balance of acoustics, lighting, esthetic, and budgetary requirements. Splitting the bidding and installation across the appropriate ceiling and electrical contractors, with products appropriately cross-referenced in Divisions 09 and 26, will lead to less friction downstream. The result of scalable, unique, heterogenous designs which accommodate both ceiling and lighting elements is well worth the effort and shift in how one approaches integrated systems in the future.


Star Davis is a creative and analytical designer focused on carbon-cutting, intelligent, innovative solutions for the constructed environment. She is currently vice president of innovation and product development at Focal Point and previous worked as an adjunct lecturer at Parson School of Design. She was formerly global head of lighting for WeWork and consultant at Arup NY.

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