Three Ways to Prepare Ceilings For Seismic Compliance


March is National Earthquake Awareness Month, which serves as a good reminder for architects and specifiers to consider how they specify ceiling structures for earthquake preparedness. This is especially important, as earthquakes aren’t strictly a west coast phenomenon—making seismic compliance a growing concern for industry professionals across the U.S. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), between 1973 and 2008 there were 21 earthquakes with a three magnitude or higher in the central and east United States. This number increased dramatically to 1,000 in 2015, largely because of induced seismicity.

There are so many unpredictable scenarios that can happen in the short span of a seismic event. One of the scariest possibilities is that the ceiling collapses, causing property damage, injury or worse. It was because of those fears that in the past, suspended ceiling systems were often avoided in areas that have high earthquake activity.

Thankfully, advances in design and technology have made suspended ceiling structures safer and seismic compliant. For example, most of USG’s current line of ceiling products is designed to be used in areas with high seismicity. But beyond choosing quality products, there are three core considerations that architects and specifiers need to keep top of mind when engineering ceilings for earthquake scenarios.

  1. Know the potential for seismicity where you practice
    One of the most common mistakes an architect or specifier can make in planning for ceiling construction is underestimating an area’s potential for earthquakes, which leads to critical oversights. This is especially true of professionals who practice in the Midwest and east coast. The USGS is an excellent initial resource for understanding both earthquake potential and activity in any given area.

  2. Keep current on codes for seismic compliance
    Seismic compliance shifts over time and even geography. New research is always being developed that shapes building codes. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), most states and local jurisdictions adopt the model building codes maintained by the International Code Council (ICC). However, adoption of those codes is uneven across states, counties, towns and even streets. The codes a building most follow ultimately are influenced by the land it resides on, the soil on that land and the intended use of the building. The best way to keep current on the highest standards for seismic design is to follow ICC’s family of codes and utilize the NEHRP Recommended Seismic Provisions for New Buildings and Other Structures.

  3. Engineer suspended ceilings with ultimate safety in mind
    When a suspended ceiling is compromised during an earthquake, it can have so many potential negative outcomes. Differential movement in the ceiling can greatly damage non-structural elements like sprinkler heads or fixed lighting. Acoustical panels or light fixtures can dislodge and fall on someone. For these reasons, prepare a structure’s ceiling with the following in mind:

Life safety: Suspended ceiling plans should minimize the possibility for collapse onto occupants, as well as ensure that if non-structural elements fall they won’t block emergency exists.

Minimize property and functional loss: Ceilings should be engineered for durability against seismicity, because every non-structural element damaged by a suspended ceiling’s failure is a monetary loss for the building owners. Even worse, property damage can lead to occupants being unable to use that structure for the short term because it has become non-functional or uninhabitable.

Successful ceiling earthquake engineering starts with strong foundational planning, but using proven, reputable suspension ceiling materials will take the plan the rest of the way. Visit USG’s grid and suspension products pages for more information and resources. To learn more, click the infographic below.