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Stretch Ceilings - what is it?

Updated: Sep 29, 2018

Most people who aren’t in the design or construction industry don’t know how the ceilings in their home are attached, or how they relate to the floor above, so this is a quick primer on ceiling technologies in general.

Most people don’t know how the ceilings in their home are attached, or how they relate to the floor above. In North America, residential ceilings are usually made of drywall (professionals call it GWB – Gypsum Wall Board) which comes in 4’-0” x 8’-0” sheets of varying thickness and is screwed into unfinished “dimensioned lumber” joists –These run parallel to each other, horizontally, usually about 18” apart. They are thicker in the vertical direction, so the ceiling is screwed into the “edge” of the lumber. There may be insulation between the joists and furring strips between the joists and the ceiling. In some newer construction, especially industrial, the studs may be made of galvanized steel. In a high rise, the ceiling may be a solid concrete slab, about 12” thick, which is also the floor of the story above. There may be conduits running through it which carry plumbing pipes and electrical wires. The drywall or concrete is generally either painted, or covered with stucco.

Another common type of ceiling is a “dropped ceiling”, usually consisting of a metal grid which supports acoustic tiles, usually measuring 2’-0”x 2’-0” or 2’-0”x 4’-0”. The metal grid itself is supported by ceiling hung wires, and a wall-attached frame around the edge. These are commonly used in office and industrial spaces to hide (HVAC) heating, ventilation and air conditioning duct work, plumbing, and wiring in a “plenum”, a space of about 12” between the original unfinished ceiling and the dropped ceiling. Sometimes, we also see them in residential basements that were finished post-construction, because they’re a faster, less costly and less messy way to create a finished ceiling than drywall. Translucent plastic panels fit into the grid as diffuses for fluorescent lighting.  These may be removed and replaced with a stretched ceiling, or some or all of the tiles may be replaced with tiles wrapped in stretch ceiling membrane for a fresh, updated, and often much more colorful look.

Recently, the trend in industrial spaces has been to leave the HVAC, pipes and wires showing against the unfinished ceiling and paint everything one color (usually matte black or white). This creates a more open airy atmosphere, but more importantly, it allows for more light to pass through the windows throughout the space, and uses less building materials. Both of these are important principals in an environmentally sustainable building. The downside of this design decision can be poor acoustics, so we have also seen the recent addition of a few scattered panels, or clouds, of acoustically absorbent material, hung in strategic locations.

Stretch ceilings are different from all of the above.

They most closely resemble dropped ceilings, but because there is no need to wedge stiff panels into place, they can be located much closer to the existing finished or unfinished ceiling. The minimum distance needed is less than one inch.

There is no need to learn how to install your own stretched ceiling, as our installers do all the work.

The process requires a minimum of two installers. First, we visit the site and take exact measures of all the spaces that we will be covering. If there is any large furniture right up against the walls, it will need to be moved out for the installation, which is by appointment. Nothing needs to be moved to another room though, unless the room is very small or crowded.

On installation day, we start by bringing in “profiles”. Extruded strips of plastic or aluminum (the type of profile will depend on the material that has been chosen for the ceiling membrane, and whether or not it is a ceiling or wall mount) which have already been cut to size to fit the length of each of the sides of the membrane to be installed. The material is already harpooned at this point as well. This could be the length of four walls surrounding a ceiling, but many ceilings are less regularly shaped. No matter how many wall surfaces are involved, or what angles they are on to each other, we install profiles all the way around. If the ceiling is angled, we install the profiles to follow the angle. The same happens if you choose to have a membrane installed over an entire wall or on part of a wall (as an over-sized art piece, for instance). Multiple drywall screws are used to mount the profiles. They do not need to go into the studs, as the number of them that we use and their holding strength in drywall is sufficient to support the fully tension-ed ceiling.

Next, we bring in the membrane. Back at headquarters, it has been cut to size. This may involve welding more than one piece together as the membrane comes in rolls, like fabric.  We do the welding with a machine that has a 5000 ++ volt electrode, which uses high-frequency electric waves to melt the plastic with high-frequency ray. The seams are always straight and flat. After the shape of the wall or ceiling to be covered has been created, still back at HQ, we have fitted all of the edges with “harpoon”. This is a specially shaped plastic strip which wraps around the edge of the material. It is stiffer than the membrane, yet still flexible. The harpoon is securely welded on to the membrane and can only be removed by cutting the membrane.

Our installers then use specially shaped spatulas (The shape is determined by the exact type of profile we’re using) to push the harpooned edges of the membrane into the installed profiles. Until the ceiling is fully installed, it still looks wrinkly and rubbery. More commonly, we use polymer vinyl, which needs to be stretched and then shrunk. We carefully and evenly apply hot air from heating units which we bring to the site, which makes the material more stretchy. It has been cut and harpooned to 15% less than the size of the space into which it will go. The installers ease it into place, starting with strategic points that balance each other across the room, until the entire space is covered and all the edges and corners have all been tucked in.

The harpoon locks into the profile in such a way that the more tension there is on the membrane, the more securely the harpoon and profile lock into each other. The finished ceiling is able to support pound of weight per square foot, but it will stretch wherever weight sits on it, so all pendant lighting, pot lights, vents, and other ceiling fixtures need to be supported by the structure above, then our installers fit special ‘collars’ around them so that they appear to be seamlessly integrated into the stretch ceiling.

The weight support is an important feature because if a pipe above the ceiling should spring a leak, the ceiling will hold the water until it can be turned off and siphoned away, preventing it from landing on flooring, furniture, carpets, etc., and ruining them. An easier way to understand just how strong these membranes are is this photo of Daniel, one of our friendly staff, bravely performing a strength test!

The next step is for our installers to leave! The whole process has taken less than 2 hours, unless the space is really large on an industrial scale, very complex, or very cold. Any furniture that was moved may be put back in place immediately, no drying time is required, and the room may go back into normal use immediately. Since all of the cutting took place at our headquarters, there are no scraps left behind. There may be a tiny bit of dust from inserting the drywall screws to hold the profile, so you might want to do a quick sweeping or vacuuming. Since we only deal with the edges of the room, it doesn’t matter if there’s something in the middle that would normally make it difficult to access the ceiling, like a swimming pool, hot tub, waterbed, or large piece of furniture. Everything is finished when we leave from this one appointment. We do not need to come back to paint or apply color (it’s built into the material so that it never fades, peels, or bubbles), fit the fixtures, or do anything else. We will, however, be happy to return when you decide that you like your new ceiling or wall so much that you’d like another one in a different space!

Also stretch ceiling protect your room from flooding (see pic below).

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