The open floor plan has become synonymous with organizations seeking out young, creative talent. While these workplaces can attract such employees, they can pose some sound control problems if not adequately designed.
“Although open spaces can do a lot to promote interaction and creativity, the most common effect of poor acoustic quality is easy distraction for those on task,” says Geoff Hahn, creative director at PURE + FREEFORM, an architectural wall and ceiling manufacturer. “Sound absorption, sound masking or even demountable walls that provide a silent space are all great solutions.”
Poor sound quality can limit productivity and impact the bottom line. What steps should you take to improve your open office’s acoustics?
Find and Maintain a Desired Volume
We often associate a certain sound volume with a level of productivity. However, a loud workplace does not mean everyone is working efficiently, just as a silent office does not mean everyone is working optimally with no distractions.
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“It’s kind of a Goldilocks situation. A loud office sounds productive, but maybe it’s really annoying to a lot of people, and they aren’t as productive as they could be,” says John Stein, president of Kirei, a sustainable building material manufacturer. “And in a silent office you’re not even sure if you can sneeze because everyone will look over. You want to find that happy medium depending on your desired environment.”
If you have to choose between a space being too loud or too quiet, the better option is to let the common space be a little too loud, according to Thomas Juncher Jensen, principal at JIDK, an interior design firm in New York. This is because contrasting sound levels in the office will be more distracting.
“A whistling notification sound will drive you insane in a quiet space but will be somewhat manageable in a louder, more dynamic setting,” Juncher Jensen explains.
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Sound from phone calls is unavoidable. If your building doesn’t take that into consideration, phones can magnify acoustical problems. Thinking about different ways phones can be used in your facility can help with this problem.
“The users who want quiet are drowned out by those talking loudly to each other or using the phone,” says Juncher Jensen. The opposite can happen when offices are too quiet, he explains: “Users get self-conscious about making phone calls and start to use a hushed, unnatural voice.”
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To combat some of these issues, Juncher Jensen suggests a combination of screens and accessible phone rooms. Some solutions include standing tables near windows that allow occupants to walk and talk, wall-mounted hoods that function similar to phone booths and team phone rooms with furniture for casual calls.
Cover Hard Surfaces
If design for a space does not adequately consider acoustics for its surfaces, sound control can easily become a problem. Hard, highly reflective surfaces can be some of the worst offenders for poor sound quality, as are spaces with high ceilings. Because sound bounces off these hard surfaces, ceiling and wall surfaces are critical areas to target for acoustics.
(Photo: Equipping your workplace with highly absorptive ceiling panels and carpet can reduce echo in open plan offices. Credit: KIREI)
Ceilings should be a priority for attaching sound absorption apparatuses. In addition, cover hard-surfaced walls with some kind of acoustical panel or material. Stein suggests including panels 3-7 feet above the floor because it covers a foot below where your mouth is when sitting and a foot above typical standing height.
Because sound bounces similarly to a ping-pong ball, parallel walls can create noise issues. Covering adjacent walls with acoustical panels is key to preventing the reverberation of sound between two walls, explains Stein.
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“Parallel walls will bounce sound back and forth to create an echo cacophony,” says Stein. “If you do any two adjacent walls, then you’ve theoretically eliminated any two parallel walls where sound could bounce back and forth.”
Select the Right Absorptive Materials
Using materials that absorb sound is key to limiting this echo effect. Carpeting, screens or walls covered in fabric, acoustical panels or drop ceilings with acoustical tiles can help neutralize these sound issues, explains Juncher Jensen.
For the specific materials that you choose, you will want porous materials because they catch the sound as opposed to sending right back. One way to test a material’s sound absorption is to examine how air moves through it.
“The test is that you can blow through an absorptive material. If you pick up wood or concrete and blow through it, the air isn’t going anywhere,” Stein explains. “It’s bouncing right back in your face, and that’s what sound waves are going to do. If a material allows air to penetrate, that’s most likely going to be a good sound absorber because it’s going to hold the sound.”
It is important to note that acoustical panels do not need to be extraneous to your building’s current look and culture. Any absorptive materials you add should also contribute to the health and aesthetics of your office.
“My recommendation is just to be sure all products are VOC-free, non-combustible and easy to maintain. Ceilings and walls need to stand the test of time,” says Hahn.
Justin Feit was the associate editor of BUILDINGS. This article was originally posted July of 2017.
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