6 Myths of Workplace Acoustics Debunked

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.

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“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.”

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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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3) High partitions will block the most sound.

Inserting higher partitions into an already existing office environment might actually cause individual workspaces to become louder. There are two main reasons that low partitions can actually improve acoustics.

First, high partitions ineffectively block sound. Blocking sound with a high partition requires structural planning that fully interrupts the ceiling, which can be expensive if not done in the initial design. Instead, low partitions with absorptive ceiling, floor and wall surfaces can be more effective in preventing sound from reflecting.

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Second, high partitions often cause people to talk louder. Assuming that the high partition provides more speech privacy, those in high partitions are apt to speak more loudly because they are unable to see how sound leaks into adjacent workspaces.

With the right choice in surfaces that absorb sound, low partitions provide more effective and affordable options to reduce sound.

4) Doors of any kind will eliminate outside noise.

Just because a door is closed, it may not be able to prevent sound from coming into the room. Its composition and edge seals are of utmost importance.

Doors that have hinges, an insulated core and seals on three sides provide the best sound protection. The ability to seal most of the perimeter makes the hinged door a safer bet to block sound.

Sliding doors are best to avoid if you are experiencing sound issues in a room. They are typically glass, which has a low Sound Transmission Class (STC) rating. Additionally, they have sliding tracks on the top and bottom that cannot be as effectively sealed as a hinged door.

5) Acoustical design is only needed in a few critical places.

“The entire building is a system, and while some areas may be more high profile than others, a comprehensive look at acoustics for a building and surrounding areas is the best approach to robust acoustical outcomes,” says Holaday.

Austin Edell, associate designer and project manager in Baltimore, echoes this idea by referring to a building as a “many-faceted organism that evolves as a team progresses.” Therefore, individual changes in the acoustical design can have much broader implications.

Attempting to fix individual areas can be somewhat tricky because what might help one area can be detrimental to another. Consider working with an acoustician to help you find the most efficient ways to improve sound design while keeping in mind the interrelated components from which it is comprised.

6) Improving sound design is expensive.

Fixing acoustical problems requires an ability to diagnose problems effectively. If improvements are attempted without fully understanding the problem, it can end up becoming more expensive. Edell notes, “An acoustician has developed the best tool for this – the trained ear. When acoustics is generalized, the true source of the space’s inadequacy may be misdiagnosed.”

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. One of the keys is simply knowing the dynamics of acoustics, which often requires help from a trained professional.

Certainly some sound design solutions are inherently costly when completed after the design process, but many require only small, strategic changes that can make a major difference. You can limit expenses through careful planning and consideration of how sound can move throughout your building.

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Be sure to check absorptive materials’ STC ratings and examine workplace arrangements closely. Sometimes, all it takes to reduce the transmission of sound across an office is turning a desk or reconfiguring a cubicle arrangement. Regardless of what you plan to do, a thorough understanding of your location’s sound design is critical.

For most FMs, controlling acoustics requires working with what you are given with the building you manage, but with the right knowledge, there are solutions (both large and small) that will keep sound at a level most appropriate for your environment.

Justin Feit was the assistant editor of BUILDINGS.

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