Tips from the top

ais-logoNew Scheme Supporter Association of Interior Specialists (AIS) have recently launched a new best practice guide, designed to offer tips and advice for selecting and installing the top fixings for suspended ceilings.

AIS chief executive David Frise explains what AIS is doing to help fit-out contractors play their part.

Learning from best practice makes more and more sense in a world dominated by health and safety and environmental concerns. A ceiling falling down might make a classic comedy sketch, leaving flustered actors covered in dust, but when a ceiling falls down in real life it's no laughing matter.

The AIS is often asked to investigate ceilings that have collapsed or partially collapsed. Our investigations into these incidents have identified 10 key reasons why ceilings fall down – and three of the top four reasons in our list relate to fixings. Either fixings are incorrectly specified or they are poorly installed or an insufficient number of fixings are used.

Based on these findings we have recently launched a Best Practice Guide: selection and installation of top fixings for suspended ceilings – a follow-up to our Best Practice Guide: installation of suspended ceilings launched earlier this year.

In considering the issue we have gone right back to foundations. In the National Building Specifications – or NBS – the specification for ceilings can simply states 'suitable fixings'. Yet nobody would ever expect to see a building specification that asks simply for 'suitable foundations'.

So we have applied to ceilings and ceiling fixings the same rigour that has long been used for foundations. We have looked at the load – both the weight of the ceiling itself and any additional load that the ceiling may have to bear, such as lighting or even a second ceiling suspended from the first.

Installing two ceilings is common practice in places such as multiplex cinemas. The first ceiling prevents noises from the other cinemas interfering with customers' enjoyment of the film while the second, which is made of soft material, reduces reverberation.

The right help

Where we've seen ceiling collapses in schools, it's often been in smaller schools where a non-competent person has installed the ceiling. But the problem is not confined to amateurs; even contractors can get it wrong. We believe that everyone involved in fitting ceilings should have the most up-to-date advice and the best training available. As long as you approach the specification in an informed, methodical way you should have no problems. But if the fixing has been installed incorrectly – if the depth or diameter of the holes drilled for the fixing are incorrect – that fixing may fail. And that could be catastrophic.

It is our strongly held view that ceilings and fixings should not only be selected by a competent person, but the person installing the fixing should also be competent. We also think there should be a clear record of the specification, installation and testing process undertaken for that ceiling.

If you have gas or electricity installed it has to be certified and tested and you should be given a record of that – but anyone can put up a suspended ceiling. We believe facilities managers should have similar documentation for a suspended ceiling. And we are keen to ensure that it should cost no more money to have a competent person put up the ceiling.

Setting standards

Putting in place such standards is not something that can be rushed. It has taken AIS more than two years to produce this best practice guide. First we had to recognise what the problem was and get a consensus on that. Then we had to get agreement on the solutions, make sense of those solutions and spell out how to avoid the problems. We then had to go through a series of peer reviews to ensure that the various parties across the industry agreed with the solutions. These in turn were tested down to the tiniest detail.

We were aware that our guide had to be written in a way that could be understood by the target audience. You don't need a degree to read it, but all the technical explanations are there if you do have a degree. Indeed we have taken soundings from Structural-Safety, which combines the activities of CROSS (Confidential Reporting on Structural Safety) and SCOSS (the Standing Committee on Structural Safety) and works with the industry and government on safety matters.

Alongside the guides, we are currently developing a one-day training course to enable anyone involved in fitting suspended ceilings to become a competent installer of the fixing.

Acoustic issues

A key issue relating to suspended ceilings is noise, which is covered in another AIS best practice publication, A guide to office acoustics, which was issued in May last year.

The criteria for measuring the acoustic quality of rooms in schools are laid out in BB93, so we decided to look at how we could apply the same criteria to an office environment. In the guide we've explained how noise is transferred around the building, we've looked at the issue of adjacency and reverberation in the room and we've identified possible solutions.

The solutions are not always obvious. If you are looking for privacy between two spaces, one solution is to introduce background noise. That may sound counterintuitive but you'll find it hard to achieve privacy in very quiet surroundings.

Acoustics can be a fuzzy science and sound can be measured in so many different ways, so in this guide we've tried to demystify it and provide detail about issues such as the implications of the fabric of a building and the effect on the performance of elements such as partitions.

It is estimated that 85% of a building's cost, over its lifetime, are the people in the building, so it makes sense to get the greatest return on that investment. If those people cannot work to the best of their ability because of noise distractions – if poor acoustics makes them inefficient – you are wasting valuable resources. AIS believes that the work here is vital.

Recycling push

Much of our work in recent years is towards addressing the environmental agenda in the built environment. Take a soft demolition situation such as strip-out: we have been looking at what to do with materials when they are taken off site, including plasterboard, steel or mineral wool ceiling tiles. Many of the materials from a strip out, such as plasterboard, aluminium, glass, and steel, can be readily recycled however we are aware that too many mineral wool tiles still go to landfill.

In response to this, AIS initiated a Ceiling Sustainability Partnership, to develop a waste resource efficiency action plan. This is looking at the logistics of getting mineral wool ceiling tiles back to the original manufacturer as well as identifying alternative uses for them – can the fibres be used as a binder in bricks, for example? If we can avoid sending materials to landfill it not only makes more sense environmentally but it will also prove a cheaper option.

We have compiled a list of ceiling tile manufacturers selling their products in the UK, who have set up specific email addresses (eg This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) for companies looking to return tiles to the manufactures for recycling. Anybody thinking of removing ceiling tiles can get in touch with the manufacturer at an early stage to discuss returning the ceiling tiles. The manufacturer and in many cases the date of manufacture is clearly printed on the tiles.

Our mineral wool ceiling tiles efforts follow a similar Plasterboard Sustainability Partnership, which has only been in operation for 18 months but has already sent an awful lot of plasterboard into recycling schemes.

AIS is also working on a subgroup looking at reducing plasterboard waste in the design process. If we have reduced waste we have reduced costs. You know what they say: a skip full of waste is a skip full of money.

Ska player

Perhaps our environmental efforts are best reflected in our work with the Ska environmental rating system for interiors, launched by contractor Skansen in 2009 and now owned by RICS. AIS has supported the Ska system since its launch – it won our Eco-Innovation Award that year – and at the end of last year we were formally signed up as a Ska Rating development partner.

If you use Ska when carrying out a refurbishment, you can clearly demonstrate your environmental impact. An assessment, which costs £60, looks at how much material goes to landfill and how much has been reused. It also considers the recycled content of any new materials you use. It's simple to evaluate and you are given a rating on each fit-out.

Companies are increasingly using these kind of ratings as an aspect of their corporate social responsibility efforts, keen to demonstrate their environmental credentials. The target for fit-out projects will be to gain a bronze, silver or gold Ska award from the outset.

In an encouraging sign for us all, those companies we think of as doing the most harm to the environment – oil or mining businesses, for example – are emerging as the most keen to reduce the impact of their activities elsewhere. And a Ska gold for interior fit-out is seen as an obvious move.

However big and powerful you are, it seems, your business stands to gain by drawing on best practice tips from right across the supply chain.

For more information, click here.

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