Wood-Grille Ceiling Welcomes Visitors

An illuminated ceiling beckons passers-by into newly renovated Boston library.

William Rawn Architects realized its design intent with a custom Armstrong WoodWorks Grille ceiling system suspended in a series of overlapping curves 19 ft. above the library floor. Photos courtesy Armstrong Ceilings

Envisioning a 21st century library that would appeal to all citizens, administrators of Boston Public Library decided it was time to renovate the 1972 Johnson Building at its Central Branch off Copley Square. Boston-based William Rawn Associates, Architects (rawnarch.com), was hired to transform the landmark building from what was described as an inward-facing fortress into an inviting, light-filled space.

To accomplish this, the design team removed floor slabs to double the height of Boylston Hall and replaced the dark-tinted glass and stone walls that once shrouded the interior from view with crystal-clear, two-story glass windows that beckon passers-by into the dynamic new space.

To create visual interest from bustling Boylston Street outside, the design team wanted to include a ceiling element that would be visible from the street while adding warmth to the interior. “The library is located on one of the city’s most vibrant retail streets,” said Sindu Meier, AIA, project manager for William Rawn. “We wanted to create visual interest from the street, but we also wanted something that would add warmth to the space.”

Overlapping Curves

Working with the You Inspire Solutions Center at Armstrong Ceiling & Wall Solutions, Lancaster, PA (armstrongceilings.com), the team from William Rawn realized its design intent with a custom WoodWorks Grille ceiling system suspended in a series of overlapping curves 19 ft. above the library floor.

The flexibility of the wood-grille system enabled the design team to shape the ceiling in a way that best served the space. “Because of the flexible backers, we could shape the ceiling the way we wanted,” explained Meier. “Ultimately, we designed a series of curves, and the slatted wood ceiling was able to execute the design intent.”

The curves were created by installing 12- x 109-in. wood-grille panels in a custom-curved suspension system. Each curve in the 11,000-sq.-ft. ceiling consists of five rows of panels made up of 11 panels each for a total of 1,210 panels. Backed with 2. in. of black acoustical felt, the wood panels also help control noise in the busy space below.

“The walls and floors are stone and glass, and they are very hard and reflective,” explained Meier. “The ceiling helps temper the space physically and acoustically and provides an element of warmth across the three bays of Boylston Hall.”

The overlapping curves create a scalloped effect and conceal uplights that illuminate the Grille Maple finish on the panels and make the ceiling visible from the street outside. “The wood ceiling creates a visual cue, welcoming citizens to stop and enter,” added Meier.

The wood-grille ceiling has become a conversation piece at the library where it has created speculation as to what inspired the curved design.

Tweaking the Design

Key to the success of the installation was the 10- x 10-ft. mockup the You Inspire Solutions Center created in advance to demonstrate how the ceiling system would work prior to installation. With the mockup in place, the design team was able to tweak the design to make sure all the components worked together to achieve the desired visual.

After studying the ceiling from various angles, the team decided to add custom black metal fascia plates or blank-off panels along the perimeter to conceal the void above the ceiling from view. “The blank-off panels prevent people standing in the balcony or across the street from seeing all the conduits for the lights, the sprinkler runs, and other mechanical elements in the cavity above the ceiling,” said Meier.

The team from William Rawn also added wood trim to the bottom edge of each curve to provide a baffle for the uplights so they wouldn’t be visible from the floor and would provide a finished look to the curved-wood grille panels.

With final approval in hand, Armstrong Ceilings began production on the custom-length WoodWorks Grille panels, the curved suspension system, the metal fascia plates, and all custom parts and pieces needed for the ceiling installation at Boylston Hall.

Custom Suspension

Made from extruded aluminum tubes, the suspension system is curved to meet the design of the ceiling. “Once the suspension system is in place, the flexible backers on the back of the wood panels are fastened to the tubes, making the panels conform to the curve,” explained Dan Holdridge, design manager for the You Inspire Solutions Center at Armstrong Ceilings. Custom painted with a color that mimics the maple finish on the panels, the framework visually disappears into the ceiling.

To simplify the installation, project manager Chris Dahlberg, of K&K Acoustical Ceilings, Tewksbury, MA (kkacousticalceilings.com), worked with Armstrong Ceilings in advance to make sure the bulk of the ceiling assembly was fabricated at the factory. “We exchanged ideas and worked together to make it as simple as possible for the ceiling installers,” he said.

As a result, all the ceiling materials arrived on the jobsite ready for assembly. “The frames came all pre-curved, pre-drilled, and pre-cut,” said Dahlberg. “We just pre-assembled the frames on the floor, set them on a lift, raised them up in the air, and connected them to the deck with ceiling wires. It was like a big erector set. We just had to bolt it all together and install the wood panels.”

The most challenging part of the installation for the ceiling installer was establishing the layout and setting the first height. “Once we had the first row of frames established, it was just repetitive down the whole run,” he said. “It was actually a very smooth job for the complexity of it.”

A Conversation Piece

The wood-grille ceiling has become a conversation piece at the library where it has created speculation as to what inspired the curved design. “Some of the librarians think it looks like the pages of a book and others say it mimics the design of the barrel vault ceiling in another part of the library,” added Meier. “So, it’s really in the eye of the beholder.”

The custom ceiling system at the Boston Public Library, Johnson Building is the winner of a 2018 Gold Construction Excellence Award from the Ceilings & Interiors Systems Construction Association (CISCA, cisca.org), Oak Brook, IL.


— Find out about WoodWorks Grille ceiling systems.

— Get information on exposed-structure solutions.

— Visit the You Inspire Solutions Center.

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