Debunking 6 Myths of Workplace Acoustics

08/29/2016 | By Justin Feit

Misconceptions about sound design leave workplaces with poor acoustics


Of all the factors that affect workplace productivity, one of the most frustrating can be improper acoustics. Sound annoyance in the office poses some of the most distracting problems and important areas for improvement in buildings.

Yet acoustics is difficult to grasp because it is not always intuitive. You can’t necessarily see sound, so it can be hard to detect problematic areas or know the root of a suboptimal sound issue. If inadequately handled, sound problems can become even worse than they previously were.

“Acoustics is generally viewed as unimportant or where FMs can put more money towards it later if it is a problem and the budget allows,” says Andrew Schmitt, Associate Designer at Convergent Technologies Design Group in Phoenix. “In any project, we try to convey the importance of acoustics and how it can truly affect a project, especially in the markets of education, healthcare and commercial facilities.”

Addressing acoustical issues can make a big difference in workplace productivity. Three acoustical designers at Convergent Technologies Design Group in Baltimore and Phoenix tackle some of the misconceptions about acoustics that you can easily avoid.

1) Buildings with daylighting are incompatible with comprehensive acoustics.

With green initiatives leading to more daylighting and window area in workplaces, it is widely believed that effective acoustics are not possible in these buildings because the glazed surfaces take away potential areas for sound absorption. However, the development of sustainable acoustics material has made it possible to have both.

“More and more products are available all the time that meet these requirements,” says Bill Holaday, Principal Consultant in Baltimore. “Architects are very sensitive to these issues and often make the efforts themselves to specify new products of this type.”

Ceiling tiles and carpeting are less invasive ways to absorb sound during a retrofit, and there are a variety of options that include recycled content. If you have extensive daylighting in your building, Plexiglas sound absorbers can be placed on windows while still allowing sunlight through them. Suspending acoustical clouds over a workspace can also absorb sound.

2) Larger spaces provide much better speech privacy.

Subjectivity is a major factor to consider with acoustics. “How individuals hear and perceive things can be very subjective, meaning what one office employee considers ‘annoying’ and ‘unworkable’ may be completely bearable for another,” Schmitt explains. This is especially true when considering larger workspaces.

While it might seem like a larger space would prevent those nearby from hearing conversations, increasing the size of a workspace has almost no impact on speech privacy. The change in sound from outside the workspace by doubling its area is almost unnoticeable.

Because making a workspace larger is not only unhelpful but also largely impractical in most situations, look for ways to cover or absorb sound. Placing an apparatus that provides unstructured sound, i.e. “white noise,” to mask sound from discussions that take place in nearby workspaces can provide more speech privacy.

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