Sound in the workplace: Orchestrating ambience

by FM Media

The importance of ambient sound in the workplace is stressed by TOM HARDY, business manager of Hufcor Sound Management.

As architecture and minimal interior design have evolved since the squashy ’70s, the lot of the acoustic consultant has become increasingly difficult as interior surfaces become smoother, harder and more acoustically reflective.
Trendy restaurants with their shiny concrete floors, glass walls and Eames plastic chairs look fantastic, but as soon as two or three couples start chatting, the sound has nowhere to go and rattles around the interior. As the sound builds up, the diners compete to be heard and the sound level increases. When the restaurant is busy, it’s so noisy you can barely understand what your partner is saying and they are only centimetres away. A quick and easy fix here is to absorb sound using acoustic panels, thereby preventing the sound from building up.
Sound builds up in the same way as these restaurants in modern interior workspaces with large expanses of glass, deconstructed ceilings with exposed services, wooden floors and desktop laminate. So, putting up acoustic panels and suspended acoustic ceilings should solve the problem then.
Actually, it doesn’t. This is because the activity of the occupants in a workplace is different. Although project teams gather and other meetings take place, many are trying to focus on individual tasks and deadlines. Absorbing all the sound in a workplace environment actually makes matters worse and productivity takes a nosedive.
It has to do with the ambient or background sound level. This is the sound in a space that is there all the time. It usually comes from air-conditioning, computer fans or plumbing. Adding to this is the sound from human activity that has not yet dissipated. If this is eliminated through the use of acoustic panels, essential background sound is reduced. In a restaurant, conversation will sustain a reasonable amount of ambient sound, creating a pleasant and comfortable atmosphere in which to dine; however, in an open plan office or hospital ward, the sound activity is much more inconsistent. While some workers try to concentrate on detail, others are on the phone or chatting with colleagues. When some patients are trying to sleep, others are coughing or receiving support from nursing staff.
In both of these workplace situations, if acoustic panels absorb the ambient sound, the sound level between the peaks of sound made by human activity is very low and the effect is an increase in the impact of the peaks of sound on others. This, an effect often experienced in a library, is often unnoticed by workers in quiet offices, but, as energy is used to block out distracting sounds, they can feel stressed and idle.

Sound conditioning is a new technology that maintains an optimum soundscape no matter what the activity within the workspace. Until now, building designers have had to manipulate whatever sound the building construction could offer, such as air-conditioning sound and other plant sound, to maintain productive ambient sound levels.
These sounds, however, are not uniform across the workspace, are not constant and little can be done to change the shape of the sound. The ability to change the shape of ambient sound is essential, as too much sound in certain frequencies causes irritation, with low frequency rumbling or high frequency hissing air-conditioning sounds being common offenders.
A possible solution is new technology from Canadian manufacturer, Soft dB, which actively listens to the space via small inconspicuous microphones and adjusts the sound level as activity in the space fluctuates. However, even the most sophisticated sound systems only work from a quiet base; thus, they have to be tailored to each project.
For instance, we would create the necessary library effect with our CALM sound conditioning solution, which consists of a combination of physical acoustic treatments, such as acoustic wall panels, screens and acoustic partitioning, and then, from there, install Soft dB’s system to create the right soundscape to deliver a productive workplace. Sound conditioning reduces speech intelligibility over a distance, so although workers can communicate with their local team, normally they are not distracted by others in the wider office.
Acoustic fitout solutions can now not only solve the existing problems encountered by traditional methods of acoustic management, but provide increased productivity, privacy and comfort at the same time.

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