Enhancing acoustics in open-plan office design

Enhancing acoustics in open plan design

Thought to have been initially adopted in designs around 1960, open-plan office designs have significantly matured in the last couple of decades to almost completely overhaul closed offices. Multiple studies conducted post-1980 conclude that open-plan designs are not only great for better communication among staff but also improve a sense of belonging and socialise better. Further, a study conducted among US government employees also found that open-plan offices also encourage physical activity and hence better for health.

While open-plan workspaces look less complicated and much more streamlined, balancing the key aspects of a functional workspace in design, namely acoustics, ergonomics, ambience and functionality are super challenging. While each of these factors plays an important role in the habitability and the experience of workspaces, acoustics are at the forefront of making them pleasant experiences. Balancing acoustic functionality without compromising on design intent and aesthetics has always remained a daunting task to even the most experienced interior designer. The intention of applying acoustics to open-plans is not to create dead-silent workspaces however to have a balance of noise levels, to have the best of both worlds.  A few simple solutions that can be applied to enhance acoustics in workspaces are explained below.

Acoustically optimised floor coverings

The floor is one of the most economical and the simplest surfaces to work on the acoustics of a space. While one may see everything from polished concrete to cork applied as floor finishes, the most “Go-to” solution in commercial spaces and workspaces is wall to wall carpeting, either applied as rolls or in the form of tiles. Conventional carpets and carpet tiles generally have lesser acoustic absorption properties or Noise Reduction coefficients (NRC) due to their hard backing, mostly in the form of vinyl or rubber. To overcome this and to enhance acoustic properties of carpets and carpet tiles, a handful of manufacturers have replaced the hard backing of carpet tiles with acoustically active material such as felt without compromising the quality and the longevity of their products. Adapting these solutions instead of conventional floor coverings provide a viable acoustic control with a minor premium in expenditure.

Acoustic Wall Paneling

All walls and fixed partitions made of hard material increase reflection and reverberation time within workspaces. Acoustic reflections and prolonged reverberation significantly reduce Speech intelligibility and moreover the general comfort of a space. A simple control can be applied by using acoustic wall panels which are not only functional but are also aesthetically appealing. Innovative solutions such as printed and grooved acoustic panels not only provide an alternative to conventional means of acoustic conditioning. 

Acoustic Screens

Adopting acoustic screens instead of fixed barriers or walls increase sound conditioning of workspaces, also adding to the aesthetic appeal of workspaces. The see-through nature of acoustic screens further maintain the openness of the design intent but creates an acoustically charged barrier which can either be a suspension from the ceiling, a sliding arrangement or a free-standing fixed panel. 

Acoustic Ceiling Panels

Like the floor, the ceiling too provides a continuous space to adapt acoustics. Conventional plaster and metal ceilings, unless acoustically conditioned, reflect and add to the reverberation time of noise. Being a significantly larger component of any space, acoustic functionality of the ceiling plays a major role in that of the overall workspace. Conventional ceiling panels and material can be effectively replaced with acoustic ceiling panels if the intent is to have a continuous ceiling or acoustic ceiling tiles if the design calls for a grid system. Acoustic conditioning of specific areas can be done by adopting Acoustic Ceiling baffles and Acoustic Ceiling Clouds which further enhance sound quality within a space.  Baffles and clouds are generally suspended from the ceiling and due to the exposure of their entire surface area to reflected sound, act as very effective absorbers around acoustically sensitive areas such as meeting rooms and larger open spaces.

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