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Open Structure Ceilings and Associated Costs

I get asked the question at least five times a year when helping clients with the design of their space – “I really like the tech look and want to do an exposed structure ceiling, that will save us some money, right?” Unfortunately, the answer is no. I wish it wasn’t, because I’m never too popular when I have to deliver that news. Depending on fixture selections and overall level of finish desired, an open structure ceiling is going to add $3.50-6.00 per square foot to your tenant improvement costs over typical acoustical ceiling grid and tile with 2 x 4 fluorescent lighting. Let me explain what it is about this popular look that adds dollars to your build out.

While it is true you will be saving the cost of the acoustical ceiling installation, which can be $2.25–$3.00 per square foot, the cost of everything else that is typically hidden above the ceiling goes up dramatically. One 2 x 4 fluorescent light will cover approximately 100 sf of space adequately. Without ceiling grid to lay that fixture in, your lighting options are limited to pendant or linear pendant fixtures (suspended from the structure by cables or rigid stems). Not only can the cost of the lighting itself be two to five times more, the installation is more labor intensive and can add another $75–$100 per fixture. The net result is that your lighting costs can double – or add $2.50-$4.50 per square foot to your total project costs.

The second major cost addition is in the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) installations. Instead of placing the HVAC units and ductwork wherever is the most convenient and installing as inexpensively as possible, we now have to carefully plan the layout and location so that lighting can be evenly distributed. Flex duct (less expensive bendable plastic ducting) can no longer be used; instead all sheet metal round ductwork is used to keep the crisp look that is expected. Ductwork needs to look organized and run in straight lines with clean bends, often increasing the quantities needed. The same is true for the supply and return water piping and the power to run the HVAC units – all have to be routed to align with other elements and efficiency is no longer the first consideration. The bottom line to your HVAC pricing will be a $1.00-$2.00 per square foot addition.

The last big expense is painting everything exposed a uniform color. Gray, black and white are common, although I have seen other colors used that can be really interesting. It seems simple enough to just spray everything one color, and you wouldn’t think that should cost too much. The problem is that not everything can be painted, and you can’t do the painting until everything above the ceiling line is installed. Code requires that fire life safety wiring is red (masking tape and paper), labels on equipment need to be legible (more tape and paper ….), and light fixtures and HVAC diffusers have to be protected from overspray (still more tape and paper). Protection and set up is the bulk of the cost, making this seemingly simple task take a $1.25-$1.50 per square foot bite out of your tenant improvement dollars.

There are other minor cost additions for fire sprinkler piping, tel/data cabling, and overhead electrical wiring which now all need to be installed with extra care. However, these three items combined only result in approximately $1.00 per square foot in additional costs.

To summarize, the costs per square foot associated with an exposed structure ceiling are as follows:

($2.25 – $3.00) Acoustical Ceiling – Cost Savings
$2.50 – $4.50 Lighting – Added Cost
$1.00 – $2.00 HVAC – Added Cost
$1.25 – $1.50 Painting – Added Cost
$1.00 $1.00 Other Misc Trades – Added Cost
$3.50 – $6.00 Total Additional Cost per square foot

Hughes Marino / CM can help you further understand the costs associated with an open structure ceiling, as well as all of your project’s costs, before your lease is signed and your tenant improvement allowance has been established. Having us on your side is critical to making sure your project is completed on time, on budget, and with no surprises.

Dean Petersen is division president of Hughes Marino, an award-winning commercial real estate company specializing in project management, tenant representation and building purchases, with offices across the nation. Contact Dean at 1-844-662-6635 or dean@hughesmarino.com to learn more.



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