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Walk-On Capabilities in Cleanroom Ceilings: A Crucial Aspect of Design and Safety

When it comes to cleanroom construction, every detail matters. CREST’s role as architectural cleanroom envelope contractor sees the design of ceilings with walk-on capabilities bear pivotal importance on the direct impact of the functionality and safety of such highly controlled environments.

An often overlooked but critical component, CREST delve into why walk-on ceilings are such a significant element of cleanroom envelope design and the meticulous process involved in creating solutions that combine aesthetics and practicality.

What is a Walk-On Ceiling?

A walk-on ceiling is a fully tested and independently supported structure, with the capability of supporting itself, along with a concentrated load, without using the cleanroom’s walls at any point.

To qualify as such, it must follow ceiling manufacturers’ guidelines on relative loading capabilities in conformance to BS EN 13964 standards. Any cleanroom ceilings that do not stringently follow the mentioned guidelines cannot be warranted to allow for any future walk-on access.

Construction Phase Design Complexities

A ceiling’s walk-on capabilities don’t come into play only when the cleanroom is fully operational. During the construction phase, it is imperative that the ceiling is not overloaded while services are being installed.

It is therefore important that as many services as possible are installed above the ceiling level and independently supported themselves, limiting the need for potential overloading while operatives conduct the M&E and commissioning phases.

Why Walk-On Capabilities Matter

The sheer volume of mechanical, electrical, and filtration equipment needed for a cleanroom’s operation is incomparable to any other internal structure found in a pharmaceutical manufacturing environment. This, alongside ducting, hatches and lighting, is usually routed above the cleanroom ceiling.

For regular maintenance and inspection work to take place to keep the equipment in good working order, access to this void is a necessity. However, the challenge lies in facilitating this without compromising health and safety standards. This is where walk-on capabilities of cleanroom ceilings come into play.

CREST’s Senior Design Manager, Bob Stevenson, is responsible for the planning and design of walk-on ceilings.

“The design and technical complexity of walk-on ceilings in cleanrooms is often overlooked and undervalued in the early stages of design. During my seven years with CREST, it continues to be my responsibility to ensure that the cleanroom ceiling layout, including suspension placements and the system used, is fit for purpose for clients to authorise walk-on access in line with health and safety guidance and national building regulations”.

Early Integration & 3D Design for Successful New-Build Contracts

For all new-build cleanroom contracts, the successful integration of walk-on ceilings is having collaborative and in-depth design meetings from the earliest stages. This enables all parties to get a good understanding of a project’s scope and other contractors’ responsibilities within the turnkey package, with the view to eliminate construction issues and delays in the design phase.

Sharing knowledge and working closely with a project’s appointed M&E contractor at the first concept stage allows both parties to mitigate potential clashes of equipment locations within the walk-on ceiling design itself, thus streamlining the transition from design to installation.

“One of the many benefits of designing and co-ordinating all projects through a 3D modelling programme is that it makes clash detection so much easier.” Bob continues. “This means that potential issues can be rectified proactively throughout the design stage rather than impacting the project at the point of installation and thus generating unnecessary costs and programme delays.”

Monitoring & Upgrading Existing Cleanroom Structures

When looking at existing pharmaceutical cleanrooms, monitoring the ceilings’ walk-on capabilities become even more crucial over time.

It remains the cleanroom occupier’s responsibility to ensure that routine inspections of the walk-on ceiling are carried out to look for damage or general wear-and-tear. The amount of monthly traffic on the ceiling in question would determine suitable inspection intervals.

“If a cleanroom facility manager is unsure on whether the room has walk-on capabilities that are fit-for-purpose, my advice would be to seek clarity before authorising any access. It’s best not to make assumptions.” Bob advises.

However, at the point that any changes are made to HVAC or M&E equipment within an existing cleanroom structure, the ceiling’s walk-on capabilities must be reassessed for any resulting impact.

Structural Analysis & Planning: Load Suitability

Gaining an understanding of the amount of load due to be housed on the ceiling is where a suitable design layout can be produced. Taking account of the building’s existing structure and steel locations is key in identifying suspension points to lay the foundation of the ceiling support.

From here, panel spans can be calculated, and, in line with manufacturers’ guidelines, then be worked out cohesively with the necessary penetrations and openings that form part of the specification, meanwhile ensuring that structural integrity is accommodated to adhere to the walk-on capabilities.

Through working with an independent cleanroom envelope contractor with experience and expertise on side, their responsibility will see them select the perfect cleanroom ceiling system that will suit the spans and penetrations to provide a walk-on ceiling which has capabilities of 0.9kN to 2.5kN.

It’s a marathon not a sprint when it comes to finalising these details with the parties involved in a project. Utilising an integrated 3D model helps speed up the change process as well as delivering incredibly accurate designs.

A design may change multiple times as load variations and penetrations are revised during planning, but it’s always better that this is done then, rather than impacting the programme once on site.

Functionality vs Aesthetics vs Buildability: Getting the Balance Right

This is a delicate balancing act for most pharmaceutical cleanroom projects.

From an architectural cleanroom envelope contractor’s point-of-view, the walk-on practicalities of the ceiling are the top priority during the design phase of a project, but there is an understanding that the cleanroom needs to be aesthetically pleasing from below. The advantage of 3D modelling is that it gives the ability to look at the design from all viewpoints and sensible adjustments or suggestions can be made from there.

While functionality and aesthetics are important, CREST’s unique role as cleanroom envelope contractor means that challenges to buildability need to be put forward at the earliest opportunity. This can often be where additional co-ordination is necessary for installing suspension drops before or after services are integrated in line with the available access.

Again, utilising 3D models allows the team to identify such matters at design, rather than it impacting the overall construction programme.

A Careful Approach to Design & Installation Wins

CREST take particular care and attention to the design and installation of cleanroom walk-on ceilings, a critical component of the envelope that must be fit for purpose.

Over the years, the team have learnt the advantages of engaging with all contractors for early cleanroom design collaboration, the value of 3D modelling and a wealth of buildability expertise to improve on-site safety, reduce lead times and installation durations, while achieving the right aesthetic and performance specification.

As an architectural cleanroom envelope contractor, CREST continue to successfully work with many pharmaceutical manufacturers as part of new-build, refurbishment, and extension projects across the UK.