Designing for Acoustics and Aesthetics
How the look of your space can affect the acoustics
We spend a lot of time thinking about how our spaces are going to look. But we also need to think about how our design choices make that office sound. You want an open concept because its efficient and encourages interaction. But does a lack of walls turn office noise into a productivity killer? You took over a heritage building with beautiful brick and high ceilings. Both of those things reflect sound and create an echo chamber. How do you solve those acoustic challenges?
Knowing that design and acoustics go hand in hand is important. The way sound travels through your office impacts everyone in it. Look around. How many people in your vicinity are wearing headphones to drown out the noise around them? That hack allows some employees to power through. But workplace studies have indicated that noise levels in some offices can reach as high as 100 decibels. That level of noise is dangerous to human hearing. According to World Green Building Council’s report on Health Well-being and Productivity, distraction from noise is the single greatest cause of productivity loss. It can cost some employees as much as 90 minutes a day. Even worse, in extreme cases, extended exposure to annoying sound can lead to anxiety and depression.
Good design choices
Before you join the open-concept office backlash, there are things you can do. Most of it has to do with what kind of surfaces are used in your space. And where you put them. Hard, flat surfaces like glass or brick reflect sound back and when the waves bounce around it makes the room louder. If you want to get scientific, they have a low noise reduction coefficient (NRC).
Soft surfaces, like carpet or acoustic ceiling tiles, reflect less sound. Because the sound isn’t bouncing back, the space is quieter. Their NRC is higher. But NRC is a tricky thing. High NRC materials don’t just absorb sound. They let most of the sound pass through. So, while fabric wall panels or micro-perforated ceiling tiles help the acoustics in one room, they don’t keep the sound from moving next door. Or through the ceiling. That’s why choosing the right solution for the right space is so important.
Knowing how to use a combination of materials in a space will ensure it can sound as good as it looks. Even though people love fancy offices with cafes and ping pong tables, surveys show that what employees value most is a space that is free from distraction. If you get it right, you can enhance communication, keep disturbance to a minimum, and give people the tools they need to excel.
Finding that balance
As with all things, dealing with acoustics means striking a balance. Moving people from offices into an open concept increases visual connection, but it decreases acoustical privacy. Using glass allows natural light to penetrate a space, but it also reflects sound. It’s crucial to know what you want in order to create a space that suits it.
Giving work stations a partial partition offers that compromise. You know these spaces. When you’re standing, you can see across the room. When you’re sitting, there is no line of sight. While this maintains an open feel and allows for natural light, that physical barrier offers a partial sound barrier too.
A top-down approach to ceilings
“One of the things you have to watch out for is ceiling finishes,” says Kevin Packer, a project consultant at FFA Consultants in Acoustics and Noise Control. “It’s an important surface, especially in an open office. You want to maximize the absorption of the ceiling so that the speech… doesn’t travel across the office space.”
For this situation, you want a ceiling tile that is porous. Essentially it will have little holes in it that absorb sound to keep it from reflecting. When you see tiles with a micro-perforated surface, those perforations are helping to absorb noise.
Dealing with echo
Glass is beautiful, trendy, and provides natural light. It’s also hard and reflective. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use it and manage sound. Once again, it’s balance. Take the common area at Richland Community College in Decatur, Illinois. Leveraging a high ceiling and using glass for esthetic reasons might have turned this space into an echoing nightmare. But Bruce Maxey of BLDD architects had a plan.
“Being conscious of the fact that the walls and the glass are all very hard surfaces, we had to make sure that on the ceiling and on the floor, that we were able to incorporate carpet tile and acoustic ceiling tile to help absorb some of the sound,” he says. “This would have been a colossal failure if we had done a hard surface flooring and a hard ceiling, because the sound would have been unbearable. You just need to be conscious of keeping a mix of materials that will help control those elements.”
As Maxey indicated, using carpet can stop sound from reflecting from below. You can also take it a step further. If it makes sense to have an access floor to manage your electrical and network needs, you can also reap an acoustical benefit. Sound passing through that access floor is absorbed and diminished.
In the same way, that carpet manages sound reflection from the floor, other solutions do the same for your walls. Drywall, brick, glass, and MDF tile are all hard and reflective. But the soft texture in a textured felt application absorbs sound and gives you a different aesthetic option.
White noise and green solutions
Or maybe your color palette is a little greener. Having plants in your environment has many benefits. And one of them is the fact that leaves can help break up and absorb sound.
Creating smaller spaces
Another thing to consider when designing for sound is how you use smaller spaces. That could mean putting the copier in a glass-walled room of its own, to block sound without losing light. It can also mean creating contemplation areas. Using a series of dividers along a wall or making a recessed space, offers a pool of solitude when people need to escape.
And don’t overlook the power of a single-serving phone room. With sound-absorbing panels on the walls and ceiling, these spaces offer a place where people can really focus on their conversations. And every conversation that happens in the phone booth is a conversation that isn’t increasing noise levels in common areas.
Your design team can collaborate with DIRTT to optimize your space. We can help you balance aesthetics, function, and acoustics. We’ll even work with you on the technical stuff like sound transmission class (STC) of your walls and the ceiling attenuation class (CAC) in your plenum. If you’re not sure exactly what that means, check out our quick and dirty guide to acoustics.↗
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