Do you hear what I hear? The challenge of noise in open office environments.

Acoustical ceiling baffles used in the Indianapolis Lowe’s Customer Contact Center.

An open office environment encourages collaboration, but how do you address the noise issues that may come with it?

Our clients are bringing down walls and breaking barriers – in their workspaces, at least. More and more, organizations are adopting the open office concept, and seeing the benefits of doing so. But as with other great ideas, there can be drawbacks to consider. One of the main concerns we discuss with clients about the open office model is noise control. What if there are some loud talkers? How can we keep breakroom ping pong games from disturbing goal-setting sessions in the conference room next door?

It can be a challenge to design for every scenario. We recently invited Jeff Teel, senior acoustical consultant from Henderson Engineers, to join us in this conversation. We brushed up on acoustical basics – reflected versus direct path of sound, noise absorption materials, etc. We then followed up with discussion on how to best address common pitfalls.

Take acoustical ceiling tile, for example. It can be difficult to discern between the Noise Reduction Coefficient (NRC) and Ceiling Attenuation Class (CAC) of a tile. NRC measures the sound absorption of a material, and in an open office environment, the higher the NRC, the better. CAC, on the other hand, indicates the reduction of sound transmission through a ceiling system. This comes into play if a meeting room requires speech privacy from an adjacent space.

Sound transmission, latteral
Graphic courtesy of Construction Specifier

Another common topic is sound-absorbing panels. Open spaces may have several of these suspended from the ceiling, but any noise reduction is hardly noticeable. Why? If a panel doesn’t have a solid backing material, sound will travel through it. Add that backing, however, and sound will be reflected off and trapped within the material of the panel. Don’t forget about those walls, though; the best intentions come with insulated walls that go to the underside of the floor above. But does it end at a window, and was that condition addressed? Design solutions for those weak spots up front – in this case, provide a noise control mullion cap.

Graphic courtesy of Henderson Engineers.

While these methods can increase employees’ overall satisfaction in an open space, organizations still need to weigh the pros and cons of implementing this type of design, and understand the culture shifts that can come with it. Jeff shared multiple scenarios where his team worked to address sound control issues after construction, and while it can be done, it’s easier to incorporate these types of things into the initial design.

Thank you to Jeff and our friends at Henderson Engineers for a great learning session!