The open plan office has become synonymous with organizations eeking out young, creative talent.
While these workplaces can provide just
that, they can pose some acoustical 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 easily 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 produc-
tivity 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.
“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
How to Provide Sound Acoustics in
Open Plan Offices
PROPER DESIGN MODIFICATIONS HELP STRIKE THE RIGHT AURAL
BALANCE IN YOUR WORKPLACE
not even sure if you can sneeze because
everyone will look over. You want to find
that happy medium depending on your
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
Sound from phone calls is
unavoidable. If your building
doesn’t take that into consideration, phones can cause acoustical problems to compound.
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,
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
Cover Hard Surfaces
If design for a space does not ade-
quately consider acoustics for its surfaces,
sound control can easily become a prob-
lem. 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 of
these hard surfaces, ceiling and wall surfaces
are critical areas to target for acoustics.
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,
“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
Justin Feit firstname.lastname@example.org is
Associate Editor of BUILDINGS.
EQUIPPING YOUR WORKPLACE with highly
absorptive ceiling panels and carpet can
reduce echo in open plan offices.