Open-Plan Acoustics From A to D

11/02/2011 | By Janelle Penny

Open-Plan acoustics can eliminate office complaints with improvements and space planning

According to How Acoustics Affect Human Productivity, a study by David M. Sykes, improving speech privacy boosted productivity and efficiency in study participants. View larger
information courtesy of steelcase

Ringing telephones, conversations, and even the street noise outside can cause major concentration issues for the estimated 70% of office workers who work in open-plan work areas.

“In the hierarchy of things that bug you, the most distracting is intelligible, understandable conversation,” says Art Barkman, president of noise control solution provider Sound Management Group. “The second would be intermittent mechanical sounds, and the last is a constant mechanical sound, like HVAC, which really doesn’t interfere with anybody unless it’s excessively loud.”

A typical open plan office offers few opportunities to stop unwanted sound from traveling, but you may be able to mitigate many complaints by addressing your space’s layout.

Determine the Space’s Needs
Take a four-pronged approach to intrusive noise:

  • Absorption: Classic white ceiling tiles are so common in offices because they absorb sound, which reduces reverberation. The ceiling should have a minimum NRC rating of 80, Barkman says. Carpeting eliminates footfall noise.
  • Blocking: Fabric-covered workstation dividers at least 54 inches tall are ideal, according to Jeff Fullerton, director of architectural acoustics for Acentech.
  • Covering: If people are still complaining, you may need to explore soundmasking. Done right, soundmasking adds an unobtrusive hum to the background and makes sounds less noticeable.
  • Distance: Different types of workstations should be spaced at an adequate distance from each other so teams can collaborate without distracting coworkers.

Material Matters
Changes in design trends, such as exposed beams and skylights, cut down on a space’s ability to absorb and block sound. Fortunately, there are a few retrofit possibilities that won’t ruin the office’s aesthetic or break the bank.

“Cloud or canopy solutions are nice-looking and they can be added to a space to create spot absorption,” says Mark DeWys, product manager of architectural solutions for Steelcase. “There are also absorptive products you can apply directly to the deck instead of having to put a ceiling in that space.”

Hard floors are gaining popularity, but their surfaces reflect sound. Couple that with a ceiling that offers low absorption, and the resulting reverberation is too much to handle.

“We’re seeing a return to hard-surface flooring in a lot of environments, and that’s difficult acoustically,” says Bettye Russell, workplace strategist for Herman Miller. “The sound just bounces off those surfaces.”

Walls won’t help much in your pursuit of acoustic satisfaction because they already serve so many other purposes, Russell explains.

“We went through years of providing expensive acoustical wall panels that were never really a great solution,” Russell says. “Most people never saw their panel, and if they did, it was covered up with a tack board, a marker board, or tools. When it’s covered up, it’s not acoustical anymore.”

Address Office Layout
To ensure background noise drops to an acceptable level, examine your office layout and policies, DeWys recommends. Today’s emphasis on real estate optimization creates more opportunities for unwanted sound to wreak havoc.

“If you’re going to have a space in your open plan that’s specifically for collaboration, you want to have another space that’s designated for quiet heads-down work,” DeWys explains.

Partner with HR and other departments to encourage behavioral changes. Steelcase discourages its employees from taking conference calls on speaker phones at their own desks and provides enclaves around the perimeter of the space that accommodate conferencing needs.

“Look at the workplace as a strategic asset and use it to support what the corporate goals are,” DeWys says. “Develop a space that supports their culture, and build in those protocols to help support the way employees want to work.”


Janelle Penny ( is associate editor of BUILDINGS.


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