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A Guide to Office Acoustics

As office space evolves for the changing needs of a mobile workforce and businesses continue to embrace open office floor plans, the understanding of the impact of office acoustics is becoming more and more critical, as new architecture and designs are delivering both successes and unintended consequences.

Workspaces with trendy elements such as open ceilings, sealed concrete floors and glass walls are just a few examples of the aesthetics and essentials that define today’s modern office space. Intended as both economic and cultural rationales to lower costs and foster collaboration, as well as to attract and retain talent; the consequence is that privacy has taken a backseat, often affecting productivity due to increased noise levels.

Many studies indicate that noise issues are a serious concern to both employees and management. First, excessive sound was the largest negative related to privacy, and second, each day workers clocked 86 minutes of reduced worktime due to noise levels. While we doubt office space is destined to return to office centric plans with closed doors and stuffy meeting rooms, there is definitely room for improvement. How do companies reach a happy medium, creating a collaborative environment with private space and lower noise levels? That’s the million-dollar question. By considering the following acoustical aspects for your space, you will be well on your way to setting up your office for success.

Construction Considerations

Unquestionably, the primary causes of elevated noise levels in open office layouts are hard surfaces and direct air gaps between spaces. From a construction perspective, sound transmission can be moderated by taking a close look to identify areas where sensitive information may be discussed, and have walls run ‘full-height’ from the floor to the structure above. Additional insulation can also be added in walls and to HVAC ductwork. Even the smallest gaps should not be ignored. The space between the end of the wall and the window mullion is a common culprit for sound transfer. Fabric wrapped panels, which are typically added to conference rooms, can also work well in open plan workstation environments or on common area office walls.

Provide Communal Areas to Foster Collaboration

One of the difficulties in the design of office environments is the balance between collaboration space, gathering space and exclusive workspace. A good design must incorporate communal areas such as: breakout spaces, lounges, recreation areas and even phone booths, alongside dedicated quiet, private work areas.

Explore Open Ceiling Solutions

While open ceilings can be architecturally stunning, they can also add to the noise level of the space. Solutions can range from adding sections of cost-effective acoustic ceiling tiles to a more expensive spray applied acoustical insulation. For design flare, ceiling baffles can be positioned horizontally or vertically, and come in a variety of shapes and sizes and provide a creative energy to a workspace, while also controlling sound levels.

Acoustic Soundwave Reflection using Baffles
An Office Without sufficient Acoustic Treatment Creates Echo's, Affects Speech Intelligibility, reduces Privacy and so is a major contributor to Stress in the Workplace

Research Acoustical Products

No construction or design is perfect, and change is often necessary. The marketplace is flooded with acoustical products and solutions ranging from fibre textiles, technology panels and wool and felt coverings.

Basic diagrams showing sound reflection and absorption in an office space

Acoustic Soundwave Reflection using Baffles
An Office Without Acoustics Reflects Sounds
Acoustic Reflections: Direct, Stage Wall, Side Wall and Ceiling
An Office With Acoustics Absorbs Sounds

Absorb Sound through Flooring Solutions

What your team walks on can make a large impact too. The hard surfaces of concrete and luxury vinyl tile flooring amplify sound, so consider carpet, or area rugs as decorative and logical solutions.

Basic diagrams showing acoustic absorption

Acoustic Soundwave Reflection using Baffles
An Office With Acoustic Screens and Ceiling Panels Absorb Sound Waves

Add Partitions for Privacy

While open space arrangements tend to enhance visibility and collaboration, additional privacy elements should be considered. Orientation of furniture as well as workstation panel heights and materials should be taken into consideration during the planning stage. While there is no magic number to the height of the partitions, furniture showroom tours can allow teams to experiment and determine what employees feel is a meaningful balance of privacy and engagement. With so many noise mitigation offerings out there, researching the best approach for your company can get overwhelming if not handled by an expert. By contacting Live Acoustics, one of our acoustic design and project management professionals can strategize the best approach for your company; you can rest assured our level of experience on this topic will help achieve exactly what you want for your workspace.

Live Acoustics provide a comprehensive service to help you treat office spaces.

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"Need an Office Space that Mitigates Excess Sound?"

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Live Acoustics have a proven track record in providing effective Office Acoustic Solutions

Understanding Acoustic Concepts and Terminology

High Sound Absorption is very important in open office spaces, lobbies, passages, boardrooms and theatres where people need to talk normally without affecting others in the rest in the space.

High Sound Absorption distributed throughout the space also significantly reduces flanking noise between rooms, so people can easily talk to each other without disturbing people in the room next door.

Sound absorption is the measure of the energy removed or energy reduction of the sound wave as the wave passes through a given thickness or type of material. Sound absorption is necessary for soundproofing.

While distributing the sound wave into an absorbable material, the sound wave in addition to absorption could also experience sound wave reflection, as energy dissipate and displaces. Dampening or vibration or energy loss results as the energy-dissipated is converted into heat.

Soundproofing makes (a room or building) resistant to the passage of sound or prevents sound from traveling. Soundproofing products block sound from leaving or entering a room, and consist of dense layers inside walls, between floors and above basement ceiling drywall.

Soundproofing ideally occurs in early construction, as it can be a challenge to soundproof a room once the construction is completed.

Sound absorption involves the absorption of sound. Sound absorption happens when the sound waves is absorbed by a material Sound absorption enhances the space’s sound quality as it reduces unwanted noise and dampens sounds, like echoes and reverberation vibration. Sound absorption products can be temporary and non-permanent, unlike soundproofing products (and layers). Acoustic fabric wall panels are one such sound absorption product, and this is our focus in this feature.

Sound is created by the vibration of substance and is spread by sound wave produced through the sympathetic vibration of the medium. When sound is spreading, part of it is gradually diffused and part of it is weakened due to the absorption of air molecules, which are more apparent in the open air; but in indoors sound is much less diffused or weakened, instead it is mainly absorbed by the surface of materials.

When a sound wave meets the surface of a material, part of it is reflected, part of it passes through the material, and the rest of it is transferred to the material. The part of sound wave transferred to the material enters the pores of the material and causes the friction and viscosity resistance between the air molecules and the wall of pores, thus certain part of sound energy is converted into heat energy and is absorbed in this way.

The sound absorption coefficient is used to evaluate the sound absorption efficiency of materials. It is the ratio of absorbed energy to incident energy and is represented by α. If the acoustic energy can be absorbed entirely, then α = 1

NB: The air gap between the acoustic layer and the space behind increases the sound absorption coefficient value in the mid and higher frequency ranges

The density of the acoustic material is also important. Less dense and more open structures absorb the sound of low frequencies (500Hz) while the denser structures perform better for frequencies above than 2000 Hz range

A NRC is an average rating of how much sound an acoustic product can absorb. An NRC of zero means that the product absorbs no sound. An NRC of 1 means that the product absorbs all the sound. The higher the NRC, the better the product is at absorbing the sound.

A .90 or .95 NRC rating. A Noise Reduction Coefficient of .90 or .95 means our panels are big sound absorbing sponges, absorbing 90% or 95% of the noise, creating a more pleasantly sounding environment.

Formaldehyde is a colourless, strong-smelling gas. It is widely used in the manufacture of building materials and many other household products.

Some unfortunately are still using it in homes as an adhesive resin in some compressed wood products. Building materials made with formaldehyde resins can radiate formaldehyde gas.

Formaldehyde exposure has various bad side effects Formaldehyde has a link to some forms of cancer in animals and humans.

When present in the air at levels at or above 0.1 ppm, acute health effects can occur including watery eyes; burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat; nausea; coughing; chest tightness; wheezing; skin rashes; and other irritating effects. The World Health Organization recommends that exposure should not exceed 0.05 ppm.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted as gases from certain solids or liquids. VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short - and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands.

Organic chemicals are widely used as ingredients in household products. Paints, varnishes and wax all contain organic solvents, as do many cleaning, disinfecting, cosmetic, degreasing and hobby products. Fuels are made up of organic chemicals. All of these products can release organic compounds while you are using them, and, to some degree, when they are stored.

The method used to calculate how much sound is reflected in a room by using a metric called the absorption coefficient. The Absorption Coefficient measures of how much sound is absorbed, and is not reflected.

The absorption coefficient ranges between zero and one, one meaning no sound energy is reflected and the sound is either absorbed or transmitted. For example, an opened exterior window has the absorption coefficient of one because no sound returns to the room. An effective absorber will have a sound absorption coefficient greater than .75.

  • Absorption – Trapping of sound waves
  • Acoustic Baffles – is an acoustic dampening structure that reduces the strength of airborne sound. Acoustic Baffles designed to suspend vertically from ceilings. See Live Textile: Fabric Acoustic Baffles for more information.
  • Ambient Noise – in the work place is generally irritating background noise that can come from many sources like air conditioning, outside traffic, a noisy adjacent office, nearby construction and people’s voices.
  • Damping – Dissipates vibrational energy before it can build up and radiate as sound
  • Diffusion – Scatters the sound waves in different directions
  • Distance – The greater the distance, the quieter the noise sounds
  • Echo – Echoes happen reflected sound reaches a listener’s ear with a delay after the initial creation of sound. Echo is one of the most common acoustic problems.
  • Flanking Noise – Is the sound transmission between spaces indirectly, going over or around, rather than directly through the main separating element
  • PPM - Parts per million and it also can be expressed as milligrams per liter (mg/L)
  • NRC (Noise Reduction Coefficient) Rating – NRC rating roughly translates to the amount of sound absorbed by an item. See Acoustic Rating for more information.
  • Noise and Vibration Minimising the effects of flanking transmission, air-borne noise and structure borne noise. See Noise and Vibration for more information.
  • Reverberation - Reverberation or reverb, is created when a sound or signal is reflected causing many reflections to build up and then decay or deterioration of the sound as it is absorbed by the surfaces of objects in the space.
  • Sound Insulation - Sound Insulation Eliminates noisy disturbances from above, below and adjacent rooms. See Sound Insulation for more information.
  • STC (Sound Transmission Class) Rating – STC Rating is a numerical value representing how well a structure is at reducing airborne sound transmission. See Acoustic Rating for more information.
  • VOC's Volatile organic compounds – Emitted as gases from a variety of chemicals. Some have short/long-term adverse health effects.


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