Do you get the feeling it’s 1975 when you walk into your house? The gold swag lamps and the mirror-tiled walls were replaced ages ago, but when you look up, are you in the disco era?
It’s those acoustic ceilings. Also known as “popcorn” or “cottage cheese” ceilings because of their rough surface, these sprayed-on textures were a staple of California home building in the 1950s and ‘60s, when developers couldn’t build houses fast enough for postwar buyers.
The term “acoustic” came about because, theoretically, the uneven surface prevents room echoes. But while that’s been debatable, there were more tangible reasons for the popularity of acoustics.
“You have to understand that acoustic ceilings were a great innovation when they were introduced,” said Charlie Christian, a longtime Chatsworth plastering contractor who remembers the days when smooth ceilings weren’t so smooth. “Plaster ceilings developed cracks over time. These looked bad when they were left alone, and they often looked worse when the homeowner tried to repair them.”
Coating the ceiling with plaster and gypsum mixed with tiny pieces of Styrofoam to give it texture seemed to be the solution. Not only didn’t it crack, but it also saved builders the labor costs of having plasterers do finish work on ceilings.
“Even after drywall became commonly used for ceilings, which eliminated the cracking problem, builders still made the ceilings acoustic,” Christian said. “It was what people in the 1950s, ‘60s and even the ‘70s expected in a new home.”
Today, however, the acoustic ceiling is as chic as a mirror ball.
“People want smooth ceilings nowadays, especially on a home they’ve just bought and they’re moving into,” said Christina Lanzone of Pacific Acoustic Ceilings in Long Beach. “But you should be aware of what’s involved before jumping in and hiring someone to smooth them out.”
The biggest issue surrounding acoustic ceiling removal is safety. Asbestos was used in some ceiling mixtures as a fire retardant and insulator until the mid-1970s, when it was outlawed. Asbestos fibers that become loose can be inhaled and can cause cancer and other respiratory diseases, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
For that reason, before an acoustic ceiling more than 20 years old can be removed, a piece of it must be tested for asbestos.
Because of the possible danger that occurs when scraping away an acoustic ceiling, the testing process is best handled by a licensed contractor. “The contractor will scrape a little off of a corner and send it in for a lab report,” Lanzone said. “This generally runs about $20 to $30, and it reveals whether asbestos was used in the acoustic spray.”
Most contractors charge $1 to $3 per square foot for a non-asbestos job. The price varies depending on the ceiling height, whether the house will be occupied while the work is done and what type of finish the customer wants.
If asbestos is found in the ceiling, the scope of the job--and the costs involved--change dramatically.
“You’ve got to bring in a specially trained crew that’s qualified to work with hazardous materials, and that about triples the cost,” Lanzone said.
In cases where asbestos is found, homeowners can look to other solutions besides scraping the ceiling, including coating it with drywall mud and smoothing it into a more acceptable texture.
“You can also simply paint an acoustic ceiling,” Christian said. “That will make it nice and clean, and you might find you don’t hate it as much.”
For those who simply can’t live under that cottage-cheese look a day longer and whose ceiling is free of asbestos, the process begins with the homeowner removing anything from the walls that can fall to the floor.
“The contractor then covers and moves furniture to the sides of the rooms and attaches plastic sheeting to the walls and floors to create a ‘room within a room,’” said Mark Spangler of Spangler & Sons, a Chatsworth contractor specializing in acoustic ceiling removal. “It’s designed to keep debris from spreading through the house.”
The ceiling surface is usually loosened with a fine water spray and scraped to fall onto the plastic-covered floor. Then the debris and plastic are removed.
Frequently the ceiling is unfinished underneath the acoustic texture. “Nail heads need to be covered, and joints and cracks need to be fixed,” Lanzone said. “You never know the true condition of the ceiling until you remove the acoustic texture. In some cases the living room might be in great shape but the bedrooms need lots of work.”
Homeowners who have started to redo their ceilings themselves often call in experts at this point. “I get lots of calls from people who’ve scraped the acoustic off, but they weren’t prepared for what was underneath,” Spangler said. “There’s much more to it than just scraping away the acoustic surface, plus you’re doing finish work on a ceiling, which is hard on your neck.”
Generally, contractors will apply a “knockdown” texture to the ceiling after scraping it. “It’s a camouflaged look. You don’t notice the imperfections in the ceiling surface, and it’s similar to the texture of a drywall surface,” Lanzone said.
Finding a good contractor for acoustic ceiling removal is the same as searching for any other type of specialist. “Talk to neighbors and friends who’ve had the work done and get their experiences,” Lanzone said. “Take a look at different ceilings you like to see what kind of finish you’re after.”
“Like anything else, you get what you pay for,” Spangler said. “If someone comes in with a bid that’s much lower than anyone else, they’re probably cutting corners somewhere. If you get someone who does a lousy job on your ceilings, they’re not the ones who have to live with it.”
And while removing an acoustic ceiling may be a dusty, messy job, the results are worth the effort and the money. “It’s a clean look that seems to make a room look larger,” Spangler said. “In all the years I’ve removed these ceilings, I’ve never had someone call and say they wanted one sprayed on again.”
John Morell is a Woodland Hills freelance writer.