When it comes to getting work done in an open plan office, the struggle is real. Distractions often come from the very colleagues with whom you are supposed to collaborate more with. “[T]here’s a lot of challenges with the trends in workplace design, [such as] densification [and] collaborative spaces for spontaneous interactions,” says Adam Wells, a senior associate at New York–based acoustics and technology consulting firm Cerami. “It can be challenging to get the acoustics right in these overly loud spaces.”
While concrete floors and floor-to-ceiling windows may convey a modern look, those hard surfaces also reflect sound right back to our ears. But soft materials, such as carpets and curtains, can help absorb the din by stopping those energy waves in their tracks, similar to how a sandy shore absorbs the energy of tidal waves. When architects select products specifically designed to mitigate sound, they can create environments that are more enjoyable—and more productive.
The noise reduction coefficient (NRC) and sound transmission class (STC) are two common ways to measure the acoustics of a space. Kate Smith, a former materials librarian at SHoP Architects in New York, says that the NRC indicates the amount of sound an acoustical material absorbs and runs on a scale from zero to 1.0; meanwhile, the STC rates the material’s soundproofing effectiveness at reducing noise in a room on a scale from zero to 100.
In recent years, the market has seen a rich array of acoustical finishes for overhead surfaces, Wells says. Standard are acoustical ceiling tiles, but innovative options exist. Ceilings Plus, owned by the USG Corp., for one, creates perforated ceiling panels that absorb sound even without an acoustical insulation backing.
For spaces with exposed ceilings, spray-on products, such as the cellulose insulation K-13, may be preferred. “You can get a large space done fairly quickly and economically,” says Jeanne Jameson, AIA, an interior designer at ZGF Architects in Portland, Ore. “We used it on a ceiling of a tech office … and the [result] was impressive.” Cementitious spray, manufactured by companies such as Pyrok, is another option, as is fabric-wrapped fiberglass, says Felicia Doggett, president of Metropolitan Acoustics in Philadelphia. Decorative, suspended, or fixed acoustical cloud panels are other products to consider.
Wallcoverings milled in various shapes with water-jet machines are now readily available and can become architectural features while achieving the maximum NRC. Jameson suggests Tri-Kes’ Acousticord, a ribbed wall carpet made with goat hair that feels like wool. Wall-mounted acoustical systems from FilzFelt and BuzziSpace can also serve as pinboards in classrooms and meeting rooms, though they might only attain a 0.5 NRC. Jameson also recommends Homasote’s interior panels for this purpose. And then there is cork, “a good example of a renewable material … that has some great acoustical properties,” Jameson notes.
For the possibility of holding private conversations in open offices, Doggett also recommends sound masking, which raises “background [noise] levels to mask smaller conversations.” Another suggestion is a partial barrier to break the line of sight between speakers.
To get everything sounding right, Jameson says, architects should bring up acoustic performance requirements from the beginning in client conversations, confirm that the contractor is on board, and seek the help of an acoustician to ensure the office is comfortable for its occupants. “Spaces should really sound as good as they look,” Wells says. “And that comes from getting the acoustics of the space right.”