Sound Shell . . . Acoustics in workplace design

 In better by design

Sounds in a space affect us immensely – they impact on our productivity, change our emotions, our brainwaves and even our breathing. Therefore, it is essential not to overlook the acoustics when planning a well-designed collaborative workspace.

Everywhere in an office you have energy – conversations, phones, keyboards clicking – all interacting with surfaces – walls, floors, mirrors. Creating spaces that are in tune with our ears, eyes and workstyle, is key.

Spaces that listen

Designing a productive space is a balancing act – and your employees are at the heart of it. Your type of business, the number of employees you have and the requirements of the space – areas to interact, private areas – all influence acoustic needs.

Today, many office spaces engage an open-plan layout which encourages collaboration. However, some employees struggle to perform knowledge-based tasks if they are in a space where other people’s conversations can be heard – making it harder to concentrate on complex tasks. Lack of acoustic control in a space can promote a ‘Lombard Effect’ – an escalation of talking (and frustration) as employees subconsciously speak up and over each other.

But cancelling out all noise isn’t the solution, as silence can be just as distracting to productivity as too much sound, says Nicola Taylor, designer at Outline Design. “An open-plan space that is so quiet – you can hear every rustle and shuffle can be counterproductive,” explains Taylor. “It can be hugely intimidating calling a client when you have 20 people listening in. Successful workplace design won’t just absorb sound, it will absorb and deflect, masking it in different ways.”


Acoustic considerations

Incorporating acoustic materials into a space doesn’t have to ruin the look and feel of an interior. Exposed or industrial-inspired fit-outs – which are known for their raw, hard finishes – can seamlessly incorporate sound absorbing materials without compromising on style or aesthetics.

Unlike the grey boxy cubicles of old, acoustic materials take many forms. “You can incorporate baffles – ceiling and wall panels – which are made from sound-absorbing materials (foam, fabrics) that reflect and absorb noise,” explains Taylor. “Once noise is free in a space it can be hard to reign in, so review the effects of sound in your office and identify your main areas of noise creation before installing the right acoustic solution.”

Nicola’s tips:

  • Listen to the changing sounds within your entire workspace and take into account the energy of each room – sound radiates away from its main source and interacts with every surface.
  • Identify all the materials in your space and their placement. If you find noise levels are affecting a particular area, take note of the finishes around it – including the furniture – are they too hard or too soft?
  • Walk around your space and review current desk areas, meeting rooms, open areas and collaboration zones. Is noise from one area affecting another? Is there a requirement for privacy booths?
  • Consider how your entrances and exits and noise from outside your building impacts noise levels within. If the street noise is exceptionally loud, windows or doors may need soundproofing.



“Acoustic panels are excellent because they’re designed to reduce and dampen echo and reverberation, and they reduce reflected sound by absorbing it,” explains Taylor. “An acoustic panel or divider can be fixed to desks or hung above a group sharing a desk or table as an effective solution.”

There are many options for acoustic wall finishes which can add colour, texture – even a feature – to a space, whilst simultaneously reducing noise levels. Modern-day acoustic products can entwine with the look and feel of a space and enhance the overall design. Take for example, an exposed building that lends itself to an industrial-inspired interior, collaborative and non-assigned workstyles and a company’s unique brand identity.

“You can take an open-plan workplace that has great concrete bones, expose these and embrace the raw structure. Then balance it with both discrete baffles and acoustic features, such as large acoustic pendants, and still create a functional space with considered acoustic properties,” says Taylor. “In a space such as this, you could disguise baffles between the ceiling structure and add acoustic rated carpet to work areas. In areas such as the reception, it may be as simple as adding a rug and some soft furnishings to help absorb the sound.”

Accommodating all spaces – meeting rooms for example –  is a must, advises Taylor. “Closed rooms require an acoustic approach too. If the space has a high ceiling a lowered suspended ceiling can be incorporated along with feature lighting. For meeting rooms, you could incorporate decorative wall panels, including live moss tiles, perforated wood veneer, acoustic rated fabrics or wall vinyl. The options are endless!”


About Outline Design

Outline Design is an established commercial interior design firm based in Auckland, New Zealand offering the full range of interior design services. To find out more contact us.

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