September 21, 2022
By Ben Carr, Eric Marino, and Steven H. Miller, CDT
Restaurants, cafeterias, banquet halls, commissaries, and other food-service venues typically have at least two different types of ceilings.
In the front of house, which includes public-facing areas such as the dining room, bar, and reception area, visual esthetics are of primary importance, including the ceiling. Acoustic design must consider the desired noise level, as well as speech privacy. Finishes are selected with consideration for illumination strategy and light levels.
In the back of house, comprising the kitchen and other food preparation areas, hygiene and cleanability are key requirements. Acoustic control may be desirable to dampen noise in busy kitchens, while high light reflectance values may also be needed to disperse illumination evenly. Heat from cooking equipment may exclude some products, and ceiling materials used in kitchens must withstand moisture and high humidity. And of course, ceilings in both back and front of house must meet building and fire codes and health regulations.
Some ceiling materials may have the appropriate properties for one area but not the other, resulting in the use of two different types of ceilings in the facility. Currently, the growing trend of open or exposed kitchens has created the need for restaurant ceilings that satisfy both sets of requirements. This article will explore options for meeting these diverse demands.
In public-facing areas of a restaurant, ceilings affect the customer experience in several important ways. The ceiling must complement the visual design of the room, of course, but it also plays a role in the acoustics and illumination of the space. Further, it contributes to customer perception of the establishment’s hygiene and the safety of eating there. The ceiling must also comply with health and public safety codes.
Interior design has a significant impact on the dining experience and an establishment’s branding. It sets the tone and character of the restaurant, whether it be contemporary, traditional fine dining, rustic cuisine, or fast food. In the front of house, the ceiling’s visual effect can be its primary selection criterion. It is generally the most visible surface in the room, so its impact on design cannot be ignored.
Acoustics are also of utmost concern in restaurants. Utensils hitting plates and glasses clinking produce particularly penetrating sounds, and an acoustically live room can intensify them. Even more significant is the sound of customers talking, which can carry from one table to the next. Conversations from other tables compete with speakers close at hand, diminishing speech intelligibility. This is often compounded by the Lombard effect, where background speech noise forces people to speak louder, thereby raising the overall noise level even further.
Alternatively, background noise helps protect speech privacy. It masks adjacent sound, preventing speech from being distinguishable at a certain distance. In an open room, speech privacy requires background noise; if occupant-generated noise is not sufficient, electronically produced masking noise may be helpful. Therefore, front-of-house noise levels need to strike a balance between speech intelligibility and speech privacy appropriate to the style of the restaurant.
An acoustic ceiling offers the best opportunity for introducing noise mitigation, especially if it covers a large percentage of a room.1 A study revealed restaurants with acoustic panels in a suspended grid ceiling scored better on both speech privacy and speech intelligibility, and lower on noise annoyance, compared to restaurants with exposed ceilings and no acoustic control.
The customer’s perception of cleanliness is also of great importance to a restaurant’s atmosphere. Appearance is psychologically linked to food purity and freshness; thus, a clean-looking restaurant makes guests feel safer. The types of soiling common in the front of house are different than the back of house, and include dust, dirt from the street, spilled food and drink, smoke, and airborne pollution. Ceilings are also subject to soiling in areas near HVAC diffusers. Black or grey discolouration is created by particulates from ventilation streams which attach to ceilings due to the Coanda effect—the tendency of a fluid jet to stay attached to adjacent surfaces. Ceilings should be selected with regard to their ability to be vacuumed, swept, wiped, and washed. Painting can also refresh the appearance of dirty ceilings. However, if not done carefully, it can impact the appearance and noise reduction properties of perforated panels and absorbent materials such as mineral fibre.
Health regulations for food establishments are largely written by each individual province or territory. While it is beyond the scope of this article to detail all of the health regulations pertaining to Canadian restaurants, a sampling of the different provincial codes gives some idea of the general situation.
Few of the regulations specifically detail the front-of-house; they either consider the entire restaurant as a food establishment, or only specifically regulate food preparation and storage areas. Some regulations say only a little about design and construction, requiring that restaurants be “of sound construction and in a good state of repair” and “designed so as to ensure the safe and sanitary handling of food in it.” The British Columbia Food Premises Regulation adds that it should be constructed from materials which are “durable, easily cleaned, and free from any noxious or toxic substance.”
Some key terms used in the codes, such as “easily cleanable,” are not defined. Test reports on products that have been tested according to ASTM D1308–Effect of Household Chemicals on Clear and Pigmented Organic Finishes may provide some guidance on stain resistance and cleanability relative to food substances. Similarly, ASTM C367/C367M, Standard Test Method of Strength Properties of Prefabricated Architectural Acoustical Tile or Lay-in Ceiling Panels tests material properties associated with durability. Noxious or toxic content should be disclosed on the product’s Material Safety Datasheet.
At the other end of the range, the regulations in Alberta and Nova Scotia are the most specific (and are identically worded):
Walls and ceilings in food preparation, processing and storage areas should be:
i) constructed of finishes such as tile, plaster, sealed brick, stainless steel, or other equivalent materials, which are impervious, washable, durable and light coloured
ii) kept in good repair
iii) kept in a clean and sanitary manner
iv) free from flaking materials
v) free of pitting and cracks
Properly finished walls and ceiling are easier to clean and as such, are more likely to be kept clean. A light coloured finish aids in the even distribution of light and the detection of unclean conditions that can then be corrected.
Designers should consult provincial, territorial, and local codes to determine what ceiling materials are acceptable in a particular project.
The National Building Code (NBC) classifies restaurants under Group A (Assembly) occupancies, but the occupancy classification (and therefore, requirements) of a particular restaurant may depend on its size, the occupancy classification of the overall building in which it is housed, and the code of the province, territory, or city in which it is located. Group A occupancies generally require ceiling finish materials with a flame spread of no more than 150, or not more than 75 if the location is not sprinklered, tested according to CAN/ULC-S102-10.
Again, designers should consult provincial, territorial, and local codes to determine what ceiling materials are acceptable in a particular project.
Some of the provincial codes specifically require restaurants (or food preparation areas) to have adequate lighting for the safe performance of tasks. Depending on their location, lighting fixtures may or may not involve the ceiling. An intimate setting might only be illuminated by indirect lighting, but a large, cafeteria-style establishment will likely have troffers, downlights, or a luminous ceiling. Light reflectance of all surfaces, including the ceiling, will affect both illumination efficacy and the room’s ambience. A highly reflective ceiling may help meet the adequate lighting requirement.
For new construction projects, almost anything—within the safety constraints of building codes—is possible, such as a restaurant ceiling festooned with empty Chianti bottles. But, the following examples constitute some of the more readily available commercial ceiling options for front-of-house areas.
Hard-lid ceilings made from gypsum board, plaster, or beadboard are appropriate in many places, and depending on their painted finishes, they are durable and washable. However, they require access hatches to reach overhead services and offer little noise attenuation.
In many restaurants, the overhead structure is left exposed to add visual height to the space and an industrial esthetic. While this can be economical, savings are reduced by the extra efforts required to make structural members, ducts, and other equipment visually presentable. The added volume can also require additional lighting and air-conditioning capacity.
Most commercial buildings use suspended ceilings to conceal, yet allow access to, above-ceiling cavities which host services such as plumbing, ductwork, electrical, and fire-suppression systems. The most versatile suspension system is the T-bar suspension system conforming to ASTM C635/C635M, Standard Specification for Manufacture, Performance, and Testing of Metal Suspension Systems for Acoustical Tile and Lay-in Panel Ceilings, with either a 610 x 610 mm (24 x 24 in.) or 610 x 1220 mm (24 x 48 in.) module.
While the grid imposes a visual order, the overall character of the ceiling depends on the style of tiles or panels in the grid. Although the flat, white expanse of drop-in mineral fibre panels is common, other options have greater decorative properties, such as three-dimensional panels that create textured, patterned ceilings in a range of styles and colours.
There is a standard for mineral fibre and similar panels, ASTM E1264 Standard Classification for Acoustical Ceiling Products, that details certain performance properties. No such similar standard has been written for metal, wood, or thermoformed panels.
Metal panel systems are made in a great variety of styles, shapes, and finishes. Perforations in panels can improve sound attenuation, and batt insulation or non-woven acoustic fabric backing can improve performance.
Wood ceilings have a biophilic appeal. To achieve acoustic performance, perforated, slat, or open-cell products can be used. Light reflectance depends on the colour of the wood. Wood ceilings may be heavy, and the load must be calculated to ensure it can be supported above.
Thermoformed ceiling panels
Thermoformed panels are relatively lightweight, made from thin sheets of rigid plastic. They are easy to install, and available in many colours and 3D decorative patterns. When made from transparent or translucent materials, they can be installed as luminous ceilings beneath economical, colour-controlled light-emitting diode (LED) strips. The colour of the light can be programmed with a digital multiplex (DMX) controller. This allows the ceiling to change colour and lighting intensity throughout the day to create different lighting schemes for the breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night crowds, an advancement of the concept known as dayparting in the hospitality industry (Figure 1).
In restaurants with fire suppression sprinkler systems, some thermoformed panels have an unusual advantage. They comply with NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, section 3.3.6. “Drop-Out Ceiling. A suspended ceiling system, which is installed below the sprinklers, with listed translucent or opaque panels that are heat sensitive and fall from their setting when exposed to heat.” Sprinklers can be installed above the ceiling plane and out of sight when the grid is populated with drop-out panels. In case of fire, heat causes thermoformed panels to soften, deform, and drop out of the grid and allows sprinklers to function. Drop-out panels enable the designer to avoid the visual intrusion of sprinkler heads on the ceiling; in luminous ceilings, they also avoid the shadows sprinklers might cast on luminous panel. Drop-out panels reduce the cost of sprinkler installation by allowing the sprinkler layout to be optimized and by simplifying trade co-ordination. Similarly, perforated metal panels with at least 70 per cent open area can also be installed beneath sprinklers (Figure 2).
If an existing ceiling grid ceiling is discoloured or damaged, T-bars can be repainted or, to reduce time and labour required, covered with adhesive-backed decorative strips or snap-on grid-cover strips in colours which match or complement ceiling panels.
In the back-of-house—areas not generally accessible by dining patrons—esthetics are not usually the driving force in design. The required performance of the ceiling has more to do with supporting the functions of the staff: food preparation and service in an environment that is clean and hygienic, and safe for the staff to work in.
Ceiling materials throughout the premises need to be cleanable under the health regulations, but the type and degree of soiling and contamination is more challenging in the kitchen than in the dining room. Cooking has been identified as a significant source of indoor air pollution, and grease, smoke particulate, and stains from foods such as red wine, mustard, and cooking oil are tough to remove. Finishes must withstand water, cleansers, and degreasing agents, as well as the scrutiny of public health officials.
As described in the previous section on Front of House needs, only some of the provincial and territorial health regulations, as well as some municipal codes, cover food preparation and food storage areas specifically. They are largely similar to the regulations cited above for in terms of require soundness, durability, and cleanability. The Nova Scotia and Alberta regulations contain the following the sentence specifically referring to suspended ceiling systems in back-of-house: “Inserts for false ceilings must have a non-porous (smooth), washable, impervious finish in areas where food is prepared or stored.”
Commercial kitchens generally have overhead fire suppression systems, exhaust fans, pipes, and ductwork upon which grime can accumulate and then fall into food. Such a situation would fall afoul of the general requirement for sanitary conditions. A drop-in suspended ceiling (if it does not interfere with a sprinkler system) can block such contaminants from coming into contact with, or falling from, the overhead services, while still leaving services accessible for maintenance.
Food preparation areas can be humid and wet environments. They are prone to condensation and leaks through the numerous roof penetrations for plumbing and venting. Finishes should be non-absorbent and resistant to sagging and the growth of mould and bacteria.
Conventional mineral fibre panels are absorbent, and once wetted, can sag (Figure 3). The exposed surface of vinyl-faced mineral fibre and gypsum board panels are washable, but they can still absorb moisture from above and through their edges.
Kitchens are often noisy working environments, and acoustic control may be needed to allow clear communication among the staff and to limit noise escaping to quieter customer areas. It is not practical to perforate kitchen ceiling panels, as doing so allows contaminants to accumulate above the ceiling. Thermoformed panels avoid this problem because they act as diaphragms which allow noise to pass through the ceiling and dissipate in the cavity above. However, it should be noted thermoformed panels should not be used above ovens, ranges, and exhaust hoods, or where ceiling temperatures exceed limits stated by the manufacturer (e.g. one popular brand of thermoformed panels has a ceiling temperature limit of 49 C [120 F]).
Ceilings with high light reflectance provide more economical illumination, enhance safety, and improve productivity. The British Columbia Food Premises Regulation require food handling premises are “(g) provided with artificial lighting that is adequate in intensity to permit the sanitary operation and maintenance of the premises.” Ceilings with high light reflectance help distribute illumination more evenly and less unidirectionally, reducing shadowing and providing a safer working environment.
Several manufacturers now offer unfaced, premium-grade mineral fibre panels for use in commercial kitchens. They are offered as cleanable and disinfectable materials. One leading manufacturer recommends cleaning either by vacuuming or light wiping with a mild detergent, and disinfection by fogging with a special disinfectant/cleaner, spraying with highly dilute bleach, or wiping with dilute hydrogen peroxide. The manufacturers’ data sheets and warranties indicate the panels are not to be cleaned any more aggressively than lightly wiping them with a damp cloth.
Other ceiling candidates include stainless steel, anodized or painted aluminum, thermoformed plastic panels, and glass fibre composite panels. These products perform well in humid and dirty environments. They can be washed in place or, if necessary, removed from the ceiling grid to be soaked or hosed (Figure 4).
The concept of an open or exposed kitchen is not new. Anyone who has watched a short-order chef flip burgers on the other side of a lunch counter or admired the flourishes of a sushi itamae at the cutting board has experienced their performance in an open kitchen. Their polished motions, the sizzle of the grill, and the wafting aroma is part of the dining experience. An expanded variety of dining establishments have placed some or all of their culinary areas in view of their patrons. The concept is growing, especially in fine dining establishments, as guests have grown more cautious about food quality and purity. Restaurateurs see transparency as a way to allay these fears. An open kitchen can also be a form of entertainment.
One approach is to differentiate the seating and culinary zones by using different types of ceilings, such as a lay-in ceiling over seating juxtaposed against a hard-lid soffit above food prep. The alternative is to use a single ceiling product throughout the room—one that is attractive and acoustical, yet also impervious and cleanable. The latter approach has the advantages of visually unifying the space, reducing construction costs, and facilitating relocation of the culinary area without needing to remodel the ceiling. Examples range from the elegant antipasto bar (Figure 5) to the no-nonsense service line (Figure 6).
Strength and cleanability
Standardized tests can be used to evaluate the relative merits of various ceiling products to withstand the high demands placed on restaurant kitchens with regard to hygiene and the ability to withstand cleaning.
For example, ASTM C367/C367M, Standard Test Method of Strength Properties of Prefabricated Architectural Acoustical Tile or Lay-in Ceiling Panels, is the ceiling industry’s recognized consensus standard for measuring four characteristics of ceiling products:
Figure 7 provides an example of test results.
ASTM D1308, Standard Test Method for Effect of Household Chemicals on Clear and Pigmented Coating Systems, can be used to compare stain resistance to various food products. Reagents are applied to a specimen, allowed to sit, cleaned using prescribed techniques, and then visually examined (Figure 8).
Unfortunately, some ceiling manufacturers make vague representations about the performance of their products without explaining the basis for their claims. While ASTM International cautions lab testing does not necessarily replicate field conditions, test results can be used for comparison and should be requested when considering products for which the specifier does not have first-hand experience.
Ceilings à la carte
In addition to front- and back-of-house ceiling entrees, some facilities also require a selection of ceiling hors d’œuvres for ancillary spaces. For example, entryway vestibules may require hold-down clips to prevent suspended ceiling panels from uplift due to changes in air pressure when doors open. Toilet room ceilings, ranging from mundane to elaborately themed designs, should be selected with regard to potential exposure to water and humidity, as well as the rigours of frequent and aggressive cleaning. Back-of-house areas such as dry storage and staff break rooms can be ceiled with less robust products than culinary areas. The front-of-house may also have a range of requirements for ceilings in lobbies, lounges, meeting rooms, and other settings.
With so many types of ceilings on the menu, the challenge is to find the perfect recipe for a project’s success.
1 “Acoustic ceiling” and similar terms refer to all types of ceilings which have noise-reducing properties. It is not a synonym for “mineral fibre ceiling.” If the term is used in construction documents, the product requirements must be clearly identified in project specifications.
Ben Carr is the customer service manager for ceiling manufacturer Ceilume. Carr can be reached via www.ceilume.com/pro.
Eric Marino is the owner of Elegant Ceilings and Walls, Inc., a multi-line interior product showroom in Saint-Léonard (Montréal), Quebec. Marino can be reached via www.ceilingsandwalls.com.
Steven H. Miller is a construction document technologist (CDT) and freelance writer specializing in issues in the construction industry. Miller can be reached at email@example.com.
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