Enduring Open Office
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Understanding Acoustic Design: Part 2

Enduring Open Office

In the first part of this series, acoustic consultant James Black discussed the common acoustic design mistakes found in different types of spaces. This week, he takes a look at office spaces and how to fix the often-neglected acoustics in these vital work environments. Or download the entire article here!

Don’t Follow Trends Blindly
Today we see many of the same designs in offices across the globe. The trend of open seating plans, hard desks, high ceilings, and glass walls has become ubiquitous, and the acoustics can be borderline unbearable, with distractions and noise widespread. So what can be done when an office space is already designed, but there are very real acoustic issues?

Office Cubicles Acoustic Panels

Acoustic Solutions
The biggest improvement can be made by providing barriers between work stations. The open office look and feel can be preserved by making the partitions partially visually transparent at the top. It is really important to break the direct path between work stations. This should be done in combination with a sound absorptive ceiling. However, if the barriers aren’t implemented, adding sound absorbing materials won’t be entirely effective.”

The Conference Room
On a smaller scale – think glass or drywall conference room – acoustics should also be addressed, especially since these types of rooms are often used for more confidential or critical meetings.

“When opening to a noisy space, such as a conference room on the perimeter of open office space, adequate sound isolation is what often gets overlooked. Provide good acoustical seals on the doors, including door bottoms. Avoid butt-joint glazing systems when possible, since it’s very difficult to get a good seal.”

Streamlined-Look Acoustic Panels

For particularly noise-sensitive and confidential spaces, there are other sound isolation improvements that may be needed, such as upgrading the glass, taking the walls full-height or eliminating cross-talk through the HVAC.”

Additionally, providing a sufficient amount of sound absorptive treatment and achieving favorable background noise levels is critical in conference spaces. “Often, conference rooms do not have enough sound absorption. These spaces commonly are intended to be higher profile and receive higher-end finishes. This can mean more acoustically reflective materials.”

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“However, conference rooms are the spaces that need more acoustical control. For example, teleconferences can be particularly challenging because the muddying reverberation in the remote participants’ spaces combine with that of the conference room, exacerbating the problem.”

“Similarly, noise from multiple occupants around the room can mask the desired speech, particularly if the teleconferencing system is not providing good coverage to every participant. For the same reason, it is critical that HVAC noise be attenuated to preferable levels in these spaces.”

3 Little Birds Tryptich

What About Sound Masking?
Another way to improve acoustics is to add a sound-masking system to the office. Sound-masking isn’t anything new, but with more open spacing needing sound solutions fast, many people are turning to sound-masking systems. And for the right application, these systems do work.

They can mask neighboring conversations and sounds that would otherwise be distracting. Similarly, it can help achieve speech privacy.” When paired with acoustic materials, they can definitely improve sound within a space.

Looking for some more reading about acoustics? Check out some more ways to deal with noise in your office and jump to the final part of the series here!


James Black has a Master of Science degree in Acoustical Engineering. He has worked professionally as an acoustical consultant for more than 11 years. Most recently, he was a senior consultant in one of the leading and international acoustical consulting firms, working on world-class projects. He now lectures at Montana State University and continues to provide acoustical consulting services. He can be reached at (858) 342-0986 or jblack@jbacoustics.com.