In Review: No Grey Area’s Stretch Ceiling Lightbox

We invited design experts Regina Santos from Godwin Austen Johnson, and Claudia Vaca from Woods Bagot, to review NGA’s popular Stretch Ceiling Lightbox at the Government Services Offices in DIFC. Elliot Barron from NGA explained the product in great detail, with designer Tarek Shafagoj of ōpaal Interiors talking about his inspiration and use of the Stretch Ceiling Lightbox to stunning results. 

The Review Crew

Above from Left: Justine Welch, Regional Sales Director at No Grey Area, Claudia Vaca, Senior Interior Designer at Woods Bagot, Regina Santos, Associate, Head of Lighting Design at Godwin Austen Johnson, and Elliot Barron, Partner and Business Development Manager at No Grey Area

It takes a special type of creative mind to work with something as ubiquitous as ceiling lights and convert them into, what most would agree, are impressive works of art. At NGA, you will find no shortage of expertise and creativity in the lighting and Stretch Ceiling domain, and their decade long history of successful projects serve as proof of their credibility.

The review team was given a thorough introduction to NGA’s  service by Elliot Barron, Partner, and Justine Welch, Regional Sales Director at NGA, with considerable insight into the multitude of possibilities. Here’s what we learned… 

A Unique Understanding of the Stretch Ceiling Lightbox

As Elliott delves deeper into the mechanics and design behind Stretch Ceilings, we begin to see the finer details of what makes the Stretch Ceiling services provided by NGA stand out. Take something as simple as fabric widths, for example. Sourcing their stretch fabrics from Germany, NGA uses widths of 2.1 to 5.5 meters, to account for seams in the Stretch Ceiling. “We understand the impact of a Stretch Ceiling with a seamless finish,” he says. “That is why we’re so involved in the process with the designer and supplier, just to get those dimensions absolutely right.”

But what really makes or breaks a Stretch Ceiling project is the lighting. With a multitude of options that include white, tunable white, RGB and RGBW LED solution, and with the stretch ceiling material having seamless roll widths, this allows for a significantly low maintenance light source while creating a much more cosy and comfortable environment.

“We started off in 2008 with lighting, and expanded into Stretch Ceilings in 2010. Throughout the years, we’ve developed a really unique understanding of LEDs,” says Elliott. The industry has come a long way from using fluorescent tubes. With LEDs now nearly commoditized, they have become the norm. However, NGA differentiates itself from the competition by offering no less than a five year warranty on the LEDs and a whopping 20 year warranty on their Stretch Ceiling (which is double the offering from their competitors).

“I like how the fabric on the ceiling is seamless. Even if there are any joints, you can’t really tell they’re there,” says Tarek. 

Regina: It’s a great product and the possibilities are impressive. From simple curves to complex shapes, the design freedom is exciting. Also, the level of support they provide is very reassuring. You can design and work with the NGA team to make sure that what you envision is truly possible, or change it to suit the theme, client, and the cost.

Claudia: My first impression of the product was based off the large fabric installation that looked like it didn’t have any seams. It’s so impressive and gives a light and pleasing look to the interior. From a project standpoint, the support and tools we get are incredibly useful. 

New Features

Over the years, NGA have mastered a vast range of possibilities with lightboxes and Stretch Ceiling, from laser cutting materials to making complex shapes for 200 meter long installations with minimum seams. They also opt for strip systems vs modules. “To be honest, we dislike modules; it’s simply a matter of reliability,” says Elliott. “There are a huge number of connections, so more potential failures. And we have had to retrofit a number of projects where modules have been used. If even one goes out, it leaves a dark spot that can be very annoying to look at. So strips work much better.”

It has to be said that NGA’s reputation, and their success with the Stretch ceilings, is built on taking challenges head on. Elliott and his team are known for taking on complex design briefs and executing them with ease, which was a question in all our minds until Claudia voiced these concerns. “What about having to deal with the MEP services with installations so large and complex?” she asks.

For starters, NGA enter the project at an early stage, collaborating with the design team to ensure they account for important components like MEP that may pop up later. In one particular project, Stretch Ceiling installation had around 15,000 fiber optics illuminated to create a night sky effect. Most competitors would simply run the fiber optics through the Stretch Ceiling, which is a quicker approach but lacks foresight. The NGA team sealed each fiber optic cable, all 15,000 of them, with a bolt to ensure it doesn’t come out, or is exposed to water or moisture. That way maintenance can also deal with the fabric without having the fiber optic wires get damaged. Kudos to their attention to detail.

“We have done several projects where even the contractors were dubious. But we delivered perfectly at the end of it,” says Elliott proudly. 

Claudia: I love how you can customise and create whatever pattern or shape you want on their Stretch Ceilings. You can really design a good clean looking ceiling that accentuates the space and hides all the MEP.

Regina: Considering that they use LED, this stretch ceiling is already ahead of the curve in terms of sustainability. The quality and lifetime is also a big plus, as I do believe they are a lot more energy and cost efficient, which makes it a good investment overall.

Venturing into Acoustics

With their sights on expanding their expertise to other areas within the commercial interiors market, NGA has been pushing its way into acoustics as well, specifically, acoustics with lighting integrated into them. 

Projects of this sort aren’t entirely new to the firm; in the past, they have installed acoustic Stretch Ceilings inclusive of sound absorbing foam with carefully integrated linear LEDs, so as to not create any shadows. But with the increasing popularity of WELL standards, it makes sense to offer acoustics as a package. “Light and acoustics are important elements of a space when it comes to wellness,” says Elliot.

One important advantage NGA has over competitors is having an acoustic consultant onboard to advise on all projects, not just with end clients, but with designers as well. Functioning in a purely consultative capacity, Elliott emphasizes the fact that he doesn’t engage their acoustician to upsell, but rather work with clients to get the best solution and acoustic rating. 

Furthermore, the entire team is based in-house in the UAE, and no third party contractor is involved in the installation of Stretch Ceilings or any other NGA product. The founders are actively involved in the business for nearly two decades, and NGA completed over 380 projects last year alone.

With all these technical aspects of the Stretch Ceiling and associated electrical components floating in our heads, we couldn’t help but wonder, how does one account for water damage? “Something is bound to get damaged when the sprinklers get activated,” Regina muses. To which Justine responds that the water would simply collect in the Stretch Ceiling. The NGA support team is there to remove the water smoothly and without any damage to the Stretch Ceiling or the Lightbox. “We can then just heat the stretch and it would return to its normal shape,” she says. “The setup and the materials used ensures that no water damage is possible.”

Regina: Specification wise, they make things easy for you. This is important because in a product like this lightbox, it can be difficult to achieve that delicate balance between power and load. You don’t want it overpowering the space and ruining the feel. Value engineering tends to ruin these things, but the Stretch Ceiling Lightbox and even other NGA products have enough flexibility to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Claudia: When it comes to service and installation, the team really brings down the complexity to a simple and straightforward plan. It’s great for LEED and WELL certified projects too, and it doesn’t have to cost you extra just to get those certifications. 

Final Thoughts

“This Stretch Ceiling Lightbox and other products from NGA are great, but what really makes it fun is working with the team to realise your design,” says Tarek, speaking from his own experience with the DIFC project. “It’s great to be able to imagine something, and then have someone there to keep you grounded yet optimistic about the outcome”.

Regina: My favourite part about this product is the aesthetic freedom. Not just the flexibility to tailor the design to your theme, but also the materials you can use on the go. The aesthetic freedom almost acts as a refresher, as it makes you want to use the product even more. The price point is also supportive and you don’t need to value engineer it to a point where you lose the ethos of your concept.

Claudia: What impressed me most was how you can balance beauty and acoustic performance in the design. The wide range of materials that we can work with also really helps. Stretch Ceilings are great because they really make that portion of the space look neat and cover it with an aesthetically pleasing layer. The price points are ideal, given how you can design and even scale it depending on the project. 

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