Interiors Are Noisy Places But Buildings Can Be Retrofitted to Ensure Acoustic Comfort and Privacy

There’s little doubt today’s commercial interiors—from corporate offices to hospitals, schools and hotels—look and function better than ever. It’s no wonder either; project teams tend to focus a great deal of attention on efficiency and appearance to ensure occupant comfort and productivity, particularly in the workplace.

Installation of sound masking manages the background sound level, increasing speech privacy while lowering STC requirements and maintaining the flexibility of floor-to-ceiling partitions.

Installation of sound masking manages the background sound level, increasing speech privacy while lowering STC requirements and maintaining the flexibility of floor-to-ceiling partitions.


While factors, such as daylighting, lighting controls, indoor air quality, flexible space plans and functional furniture, certainly contribute to an improved work environment, there’s more than meets the eye, however. Acoustics also play a vital role in the process of creating effectual interiors, yet it’s perhaps one of the most overlooked and underfunded elements of building design.

In fact, “the acoustical environment of a workspace is typically given little or no attention during project planning and design,” according to a Whole Building Design Guide article by Richard Paradis, P.E., Board Certified Noise Control Engineer, National Institute of Building Sciences, Washington, D.C. “The functionality and aesthetics of the workspace are usually the primary focus of the designer.”

Paradis adds acoustics is often considered a low priority because it competes for limited project dollars with a number of other project goals, including sustainable design and development, security measures, information technology, and building automation and controls. Compounding the issue is the trend toward open office plans, which has removed physical barriers that can help mitigate noise levels in the workplace. Interestingly, the lack of effective acoustic design strategies actually exposes the symbiotic relationship between noise abatement and wellbeing.

“There’s no question that these more open and densely occupied spaces have had an impact on general awareness of acoustics,” says Niklas Moeller, vice president of K.R. Moeller Associates Ltd., a sound-masking developer in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. “Noise and lack of speech privacy currently top the list of distractions, dissatisfactions and discomforts in workplace surveys. I’ve also seen many incensed online posts and blogs on the subject in recent years.”

A sound masking system consists of a series of electronic components and loudspeakers that distribute a background sound most people compare to that of softly blowing air but which can be tuned to meet a spectrum specifically designed to balance acoustic control and occupant comfort.

The Weakest Link

If there’s dissatisfaction with noise levels in the built environment, it’s because acoustics is currently behind in its evolutionary development, according to Hanson Hsu, principal acoustician and founder of Delta H Design Inc. (DHDI), Marina Del Rey, Calif., a research, design and build firm providing design and consulting services for architecture and acoustics.

“As interiors have gotten better, as walls have gotten better, as architecture in general has gotten better, building materials have gotten better, electronics have gotten better, visuals have gotten better, acoustics is standing out now as the weak link in the chain,” Hsu notes. “Meaning, when you walk into a beautiful hotel or a beautiful spa or beautiful residence or a beautiful commercial space, it will look beautiful—the paint is beautiful, the interiors are beautiful, TVs are beautiful, everything is beautiful—but then all of a sudden you can hear someone flushing a toilet half a floor away or you can hear someone talking a hundred feet away. This doesn’t fit with the design of everything else; it’s not part of a homogeneous design. It’s evolutionary like anything else where the weak link in the chain at some point becomes the thing that needs to be addressed, and I think we’re at that moment in time.”

Moeller agrees and suggests the tide is turning as increased discussion takes place about focus, privacy and workplace wellness. “But more education and guidance are needed on the subject,” he says. “The fact that acoustics remains a mystery to many means it doesn’t always receive the necessary attention when it comes to facility design—an issue amplified by the time it’s taking for various building standards and guidelines to ‘catch up’ to trends, as well as to improvements in acoustic products and technologies, such as sound masking.”

Image: Screen Solutions UK
Photo: Zahid Ghafoor

About the Author

Robert Nieminen
Robert Nieminen is a freelance writer; the former editor of Interiors & Sources magazine; and retrofit’s editor at large, specializing in interiors. Under his direction, Interiors & Sources was the recipient of several publishing awards, as well as a pioneer of sustainability reporting.

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