Creating a sound workplace

Poor acoustic performance can detract from an otherwise brilliant workplace design, so it needs consideration in the early planning stages of a project, explains Kye Edwards of Ocula Systems:

People respond differently to design of their working environment – some focus more on the look, some on the feel, and others are more affected by the sounds around them. A modern open-plan working environment, designed to positively encourage collaboration, can therefore prove to be a challenge to the more auditory- oriented person, as they are inherently noisy. A succession of reports have shown that these noisy offices can result in absenteeism, affect staff retention levels, cause distraction and have a physiological impact on workers that can reduce work productivity by up to 66 per cent.

Architects today therefore not only have to produce a great visual design, but consider the sound effects too as a critical factor. This is a key consideration in the design of offices and educational space in particular. As well as looking good, they must enable concentration and reduce the unwanted noise that has a huge impact in the workplace.

Getting it right isn’t easy, as the technicalities of sound, absorption and reverberation have to be considered, and hearing is a complex sense as everyone is different in terms of their sensitivity to noise. Understanding sound, how it behaves in rooms, and how it impacts us has however become an important consideration for an architect so that they can control sound and vibration using materials and design principles when space planning. At its simplest level, a minimalist interior can be a ‘hard’ environment – sound echoes and bounces around, so it is not absorbed or contained and that can have a negative impact on most people that work within it.

The advent of fully glazed partitioning systems is one of the products that the architect should consider. It gives an immediate solution to many of these issues in spaces like offices, educational premises, health centres etc. Glazed partitioning, particularly frameless systems, have grown massively in popularity over the past few years and companies supplying them have continued to develop the choice of products in this category. Partitioning systems now combine design aesthetics with outstanding fire and acoustic performance.

As sound waves meet a piece of glass, they are partly reflected back towards the source, and absorbed within the glass. The sound energy that isn’t reflected or absorbed is transmitted through the glass. Acoustic laminate glass uses an interlayer principally to provide enhanced damping by absorbing more of the sound energy – this is most effective at reducing different frequencies, particularly those that human ears are most sensitive to.

Large glazed areas within a commercial design not only maintain but encourage natural light into an area – they can give the same aesthetic spacious feel as open plan but can be used to create office spaces for more practical activities like meetings that require privacy for interviews, appraisals etc. The current requirement for conference calls can be carried out in meeting rooms where people can talk over speakerphones without concerns of distracting others. Separate working areas can be created with glass corridors to maintain the desired climate and keep noise out.

Today, glass partitions can be specified with various levels of acoustic performance, dependent on the requirement. Acoustic laminate glass gives incremental improvements to otherwise modest performing configurations, but large gains are made by utilising twin glazed partitions with assorted combinations of toughened, laminated and acoustic laminated glass types. Choosing a reputable supplier for glass partitioning is key, one that has the documentation to demonstrate the performance, not only of the glass, but also of the whole system. An acoustic rating can be affected by application and installation so it’s important that an acoustic rating is based on the complete onsite assembly, not the individual components or products.

Kye Edwards is business development director of Ocula Systems