Top of the class: improving the aesthetics of exposed ceilings

WoodfordThe humble ceiling may not be considered the most inspiring part of a classroom but it plays a vital role in the overall design and functionality of the space. For M&E contractors it's also an essential element of a building services solution.

Traditionally, the ceiling was used to hide all the cabling, pipework and ductwork that's needed to make a school run but that nobody wants to look out. But now times have changed. Exposed ceilings are becoming the norm, not only because they improve thermal massing but offer a much more contemporary look.


This trend means that M&E contractors must take a different approach and work more closely with clients – including councils and main contractors – to ensure that the building services installation is as aesthetic as possible. Electrical, mechanical and structural elements must all be coordinated as part of the ceiling design, ensuring they are set out perpendicularly and installed as neatly as possible. Upfront design work, including the use of BIM forms a vital part of this process.

The expansion of Woodford County High School in Redbridge near London, is an example of what can be achieved through this way of working.

Built by Kier, the £11.5m extension includes 13 science laboratories as well as computing and classroom facilities. REL was responsible for all the electrical services in the new 3,800 sq m extension, including a new substation, lighting, power, security systems such as CCTV, data installation, access and intruder control, and supplying and fitting 109 solar modules on the roof. Kershaw Mechanical Services managed the mechanical elements.

The local council wanted the assurance that each room would look as aesthetic as possible. Although BIM wasn't formally required for this project, we used the software to meet the council's needs. During the early design stages and before we'd stepped foot on site, using BIM meant that we could effectively co-ordinate the electrical works with the structural and mechanical elements such as the sprinkler systems, drainage and water pipework.

The use of BIM was also beneficial in the science classrooms which featured a large number of desks, benches and islands, which had to be penetrated from the floor upwards. During the design stage, we were able to use clash detection within the 3D model to develop the neatest solution possible.

Regular meetings with the project team were essential to support this process and develop the M&E design to the high standard required.

For each room, two design drawings were then developed - one reflective drawing showing the lighting, and the other detailing all the other services such as pipework, smoke detectors, cabling and PIR sensors. These drawings were provided to the council on a room by room basis so that the project manager could sign off before we started the installation process.

This level of detail has traditionally not been required for these types of projects, but the demand is growing. For M&E contractors, this often means that more specialist skill is required but the results are beneficial for all parties. Although the design process can take longer, the client benefits from a far more effective and streamlined installation. The building services solution should fit first time ensuring that no time or cost is wasted by any party. Importantly, the solution is also aesthetically pleasing and that can be a big tick in the box for local councils as well as those who use and enjoy the space.

This article first appeared on in November 2017.

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