Light Meets Sound: Acoustic Lighting Keeps Noise in Check

WakaNINE's Hush acoustic lighting fixture helps soften sound and reduce reverberations. Image Courtesy of WakaNINE.
WakaNINE's Hush acoustic lighting fixture helps soften sound and reduce reverberations. Image Courtesy of WakaNINE.

Acoustics and lighting manufacturers have joined forces to raise awareness about the need for noise reduction. Contemporary design choices have amplified sound with opened or high ceilings and hard materials such as concrete, glass and hardwood. To remediate, the development of acoustic lighting and innovative integrated ceiling systems are helping to dampen noise while adding to room aesthetics.

“The better we both [ceiling and lighting professionals] know what the other does, the better we can work together to meet project goals,” said Robert Witter, market segment manager, lighting, Armstrong Ceiling (Armstrong World Industries), Lancaster, Pa. “We can offer the end-user a two-for-one solution [sound attenuating ceiling materials and space-specific lighting] that work together.”

While the 2-by-4 troffer still exists, there are many new ideas. Armstrong collaborates with a half-dozen lighting manufacturers including Axis Lighting, Focal Point, Philips Lighting, USAI Lighting and others. Seamless integration is the goal, whether incorporating linear design, cove, downlight or indirect lighting in wall-to-wall ceiling configurations or something more open, such as its cloud system of suspended acoustic ceiling panels (formations).

“Construction schedules are getting tighter,” Witter said. “The faster you can build out a space, meeting design aesthetics with integrated lighting, the better. We design around our partners’ light fixtures, and they adapt their product to ours to drive the aesthetics of lighting and ceilings, as well as wall treatments. You also want to end up with the best fit for the fixture in the ceiling.”

Armstrong's DesignFlex line has JLC-Tech's T-BAR LED linear lights. Image Courtesy Armstrong World Industries
Armstrong's DesignFlex line has JLC-Tech's T-BAR LED linear lights. Image Courtesy Armstrong World Industries

The ceiling is certainly going through a reinvention. Acoustic panels float, vary in size and shape from vertical to horizontal, and use a variety of materials to attenuate sound. Armstrong’s DesignFlex ceiling system is perhaps its boldest collaboration of ceiling design and lighting. Buyers choose from 48 acoustic tile design shapes, including wood or metal panel options, and varied color choices to make a design statement.

“Our lighting partners have designed lighting to fit the standards of this ceiling line,” Witter said.

Ceiling manufacturers have also taken note of lighting controls. Armstrong works with controls companies including Ideal Industries Inc. and its Audacy wireless product. With the emergence of dynamic white tuning, Armstrong is working with the Lighting Research Center as it investigates lighting’s effect on the human body. (For more on this, see “The Next Frontier.”)

Armstrong Ceilings collaborates with lighting manufacturers, including USAI Lighting, to engineer fit to avoid acoustic degradation. Image Courtesy of Armstrong World Industries
Armstrong Ceilings collaborates with lighting manufacturers, including USAI Lighting, to engineer fit to avoid acoustic degradation. Image Courtesy of Armstrong World Industries

“We want to productively tackle these new building needs and challenges,” Witter said.

Philips Lighting has already entered this space with its ceiling light box product called OneSpace. Billed as a “luminous ceiling prefab,” the OneSpace line offers a tunable white version featuring a range of 2,700–6,500K.

“A fixture is often specified by the lighting designer in consult with a lighting distributor,” Witter said. “The EC installs it. There are exceptions, of course, where ECs tackle more aspects of a project. Either way, knowing about acoustics and their interplay with lighting can only help as this movement toward healthy buildings grows in the marketplace.”

USG Corp.'s Barz acoustic ceiling treatments are preassembled and adaptable. Image Courtesy of USG Ceiling Plus
USG Corp.'s Barz acoustic ceiling treatments are preassembled and adaptable. Image Courtesy of USG Ceiling Plus

Collaboration as the mother of invention

USG Corp. in Chicago recently acquired California-based Ceiling Plus LLC. This has furthered USG’s exploration of acoustics and lighting, a focus of Ceiling Plus.

“Historically, revenue for ceiling manufacturers has been the traditional 2-by-2 ceiling tile grid,” said J. Mark Kemerling, USG vice president, business development—ceilings. “That’s been the backbone. But over the years, shifts to exposed decks and open plenums are forcing traditional ceiling manufacturers into new and varied approaches. In turning to independent consultants who interview architects on ceiling and wall trends, it’s clear the wall-to-wall plane of acoustic ceiling tiles is shrinking. A more three-dimensional, sculptural option is growing.”

Like Armstrong, USG has worked to achieve a better fit of lighting fixtures within its acoustic ceiling systems, but the trend of trying something new in ceiling design also has opened the door to new forms of collaboration with lighting manufacturers.

“Lighting advances such as LED and lighting control have also been a natural marriage for us,” Kemerling said. “Consider materials such as baffles and other three-dimensional sculptural elements that help absorb sound. At first, they may not seem to marry with lighting as would a grid ceiling, but they can and they do.”

Rana Ahmadi is an architecture designer for Ceiling Plus.

“Because fixture choices typically complement room finishes and color, and sometimes texture, aesthetics has also brought ceiling and wall contractors together with lighting and fixture designers,” she said. “There is a lot of experimentation going on right now. Choices made in using light as fill, spill or directional influence ceiling and wall design. We look at different ways to diffuse the light and want a lighting housing that spreads the light uniformly.”

USG’s Barz product has been the first to emerge from Ceiling Plus. Described as “ultra-lightweight panels” in wood or metal finishes, Barz comes preassembled and adaptable, taking on the form of beams, struts, slats or any linear shape. The product surface is microperforated and filled with recycled denim fabric to absorb sound. LED fixtures can be integrated into the product.

“Integrated lighting design is versatile and is dependent on the design intent,” Ahmadi said. “We have a large selection of our own microperforations, but our Illuminated Barz product can also be customized by designers. Perforations are designed parametrically with our custom perforation tools. So, perforations can be done in many different ways with designs based the appropriate lighting for the space.”

USG's Parti dual-layer acoustic ceiling has integrated lighting and a custom perforated design. Image Courtesy of USG Ceiling Plus
USG's Parti dual-layer acoustic ceiling has integrated lighting and a custom perforated design. Image Courtesy of USG Ceiling Plus

The acoustic lampshade

A number of fixture manufacturers are designing lighting shades as “acoustic sponges.” Some are fabric-like shades, others use perforated metal to diffuse noise. LightArt and wakaNine are two such companies.

“A lot of things we do involves aesthetics,” said Ryan Smith, president and creative director, LightArt. “This extends to the look to our lighting fixtures. Resolving acoustic issues was a continuing challenge we kept hearing in the field. That led us to think, what if we could combine lighting and acoustics as a benefit to our customers, yet maintain our soft fabric look?”

LightArt is a custom lighting fabrication and design studio in Seattle. Its Acoustic Collection introduced nearly two years ago is defined by shape and size including box, drum, linear, sconce, pendant and more. The fixtures use Sola or PET Felt, representing 50 percent post-consumer waste.

“You have to ask what a room needs if sound is an issue,” Smith said. “Our Static beam is meant for long runs over an open office plane. The Echo features a pattern that could be for lobby spaces [and] break rooms. Our Acoustic Box and Acoustic Drum work great over tables, maybe restaurant seating. Our Ring can cover a larger space perhaps accommodating a ballroom or conference room. We recently installed Ring in an airport. All our lighting is LED. The fixtures are simple to install.”

While acoustic lighting fixtures may run higher than other lighting fixtures, Smith added they are a two-for-one investment—sound attenuation and light.

WakaNINE in Austin, Texas, is a North American distributor for international lighting designers. Its acoustic offering, Hush, is designed by David Trubridge for IQ Commercial out of New Zealand. The fixture helps soften sound and reduce reverberations in commercial, hospitality and residential spaces. The Hush oval or round shades are created from 65 percent post-consumer waste (water bottles) and are manufactured to have a fibrous texture. Offered as an integrated LED fixture in 12 color choices, a lower cost version incorporates an E26 base for an LED lamp.

“Suspended lighting fixtures with sound attuning material are another way to affect the acoustics in a space,” said John Cook, CEO and owner, wakaNINE. “Acoustically, you are adding material to the fixture that can absorb sound and mitigate noise closer to the source in a room. You are not lowering sound from a decibel measure but distorting it so it’s less distracting. Hush gives sound a place to land. It turns sound into a hum similar to how white noise operates.”

The effect of bad acoustics has been studied. Hospital patients exposed to bad sound can be adversely affected in their recovery and sleep. Offices have been studied, as well. Findings tell a story of a need for better sound attenuation.

“A factoid I find is compelling is, if a disruption occurs—including noise—when you are at work and deep in concentration on any given task, it will take you 22 minutes to get back into that productive zone,” Cook said. “Bad acoustics and noise can also add stress in the workplace. It can wear the body down, tire it and open the door to sickness. Remedying bad acoustics is important for any number of reasons.”

Finally, acoustic ceiling systems and lighting fixtures can come together in a space that has both open ceilings and closed offices or reception areas where suspended acoustic lighting can add to sound-attenuating goals. Their performance can also be measured. A noise-reduction coefficient of 1 indicates perfect absorption (how material absorbs sound). Another measure called sabin would also yield a value of 1 if 100 percent absorption occurred at any chosen test frequency.

“Everyone wants to provide value,” said USG’s Kemerling. “Lighting and ceiling decision makers are often owners, architects, or lighting designers. Imagine the electrical contractor breaking the paradigm and advising what role lighting can play in meeting a project’s acoustical goals. Imagine helping guide decisions in concert with the acoustical contractor. Now that’s two-for-one.”

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.

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