Although acoustics aren’t at the top of the list of most design project plans or decor considerations, we all immediately – and unhappily – know when we’re in a room that’s too noisy. It could be an office where unwanted sound is literally undermining concentration and memory, and distracting from the work to be done. Or a restaurant that’s just too loud for conversation — too many otherwise-great spots serve too much din with the dinner! Could be a home theatre where the expensive AV equipment isn’t giving the promised quality of sound. In any of these situations and many more, acoustic panels may provide results — and relief!
So, how do you know if a room will benefit from acoustic panels (or other acoustic treatment)? Easy – just run through this list of considerations!
Assess the noise
If you’re working with an existing space, it’s often a simple matter to answer the question: is the sound level inside the room conducive to its intended use and the comfort of the people using it? Is there enough sound for the space to feel “alive”? Or is there so much that the “sound” becomes “noise”? The occupants themselves will not hesitate to tell you the answer!
Even at the planning stage of a new project or renovation, it is fairly easy to forecast the general acoustic impact of the design choices being made. The sound absorption qualities of the planned surface materials can be easily assessed for how they will support the room’s intended use.
Consider the impacts of the noise
Often acoustic treatments are thought of as “nice-to-do” or “add-on options”. Interior designers have told us acoustics are often one of the first items their clients will cut to reduce a project budget.
However, noise levels are MUCH more than a matter of personal preference. Health and well-being, productivity and – in the case of business – profitability, are all affected by noise. Many studies have proven that extensive and/or excessive exposure to noise impacts us physically and in our ability to perform mental tasks. Less scientifically, our personal experience generally confirms the finding, “noise makes us cranky”. And cranky people are not delivering their best, at work or at play!
The International Well Building Institute has published a set of building standards to maintain and enhance occupant health and wellness. Their documentation details how poor acoustics impact our cardiovascular, endocrine and nervous systems!
Good acoustics can be critical to the purpose of and the people in a space. These things are definitely worth a budget allocation.
Consider your options for reducing noise
If you recognize that a room is noisy due to reverberation of the sound created inside it, you may have several options. (If the noise problem is originating outside the room, the issue is soundproofing, not the topic of this post.)
Architectural and decorative surface materials all either reflect or absorb sound to some degree, measured and expressed as their “noise reduction coefficient” or NRC. The NRC for hard surfaces such as drywall, brick, glass, concrete and metal can be as low as zero! These surfaces reflect almost all of the sound waves that reach them, creating a lot of reverberation (i.e., noise!) in a room. The NRC for carpets, lush or plentiful fabrics such as drapes or tablecloths is somewhat higher: they will absorb some sound, and may be a decorating option that will help.
The highest – and best – NRC is obtained in specialized acoustic products. At the construction stage, many projects may be able to incorporate acoustic ceiling tiles or specific flooring materials. But these aren’t appropriate for all types of spaces. And for retrofits, it’s often too late.
This brings us (finally!) to acoustic panels. Acoustic panels – and the related category of acoustic baffles – have extremely high NRC. They can absorb sound to a degree 50 times or more than the rate of most common hard surfaces. (Look for a future post for details on this!) Acoustic panels can be incorporated into original plans and designs and/or added to a finished space. They can be mounted or suspended from ceilings and/or walls. The look can be customized with thousands of potential fabric wraps. And increasingly, they are being offered in more shapes and styles, or with fabrication features that can add much to the visual esthetic of a room.
Acoustic panels can provide the “ahhh” of comfort that makes a room comfortable, beautiful and functional – great to use and enjoy.
Acoustic panels offer many benefits as a component, complement or correction in a design or finished room. Good room acoustics will enhance the space and the users’ experience in it. And good acoustics is more than simply preference, impacting people’s health and well-being. For commercial premises, acoustics can impact a business’ bottom line, enhancing employee productivity and helping attract and retain customers to a comfortable environment.
Acoustics With Design is a Canadian distributor focused on bringing beautiful products to the Canadian acoustics market. This is the first of a series of posts on the subject of acoustic panels, that will address when, where and how acoustic panels can enhance built environments and user experiences.
If you have a project or a problem with a noisy room, let us know. If you have a story about how a noisy room has affected you, we’d love to hear! Share, in the comments section below.
Any questions or comments? Leave them below!
How Much Acoustic Panelling Do I Need? Part 1: What Kind of Acoustic Environment Do You Want?
So, you’ve decided that you want acoustic panelling in a space (see How To Know When You Need Acoustic Panels In Your Room). The obvious next question is “how much?”
The answer is … there is no single right answer! What matters is what’s right for YOU, based on who will be using the space and what they’ll be doing there. But there IS a right PROCESS for deciding. And as with all project planning, it helps to begin with the end goal in mind and then take the steps that will achieve the goal.
Specifically, for an acoustic panels intallation the steps are:
Qualitatively set the goal: What KIND of acoustic environment do you need?
Acoustically quantify the goal …
Calculate the starting point …
Calculate the amount of sound absorption needed to get from start to goal …
Check the results against available space and budget
… then design your installation!
Sounds simple, right? Actually, room acoustics for most business, restaurant and home spaces ARE fairly straightforward, but it’s a good idea to consult with a knowledgeable acoustics provider.
This post addresses the first step of the process. Later posts will complete the cycle.
What KIND of Acoustic Environment do you need?
It’s said that “noise is in the ear of the listener”. In other words, the difference between “sound” and “noise” depends on the when, where and who of the hearers. Music for example, is welcome sound at a party but it’s likely noise when in the workplace. And “noise”, pretty much by definition, is distracting and irritating!
Geoff Leventhall, an independent noise consultant and author says “The actual level of sound as objectively measured in decibels makes up only about 30 percent of how it is perceived. People’s attitude can play a big part.” This is worth a moment’s consideration! While a good sound meter will reliably and consistently register the number of decibels, it’s mostly up to the listeners to say whether something is loud or not! And those listeners may change their assessments, for different times, places and contexts!
A room’s acoustics should be tuned to the desires and goals of the people who use it. Whether you are a design professional working on behalf of a client or planning for your own use, the ACOUSTICAL GOAL is the most important conversation to have with your acoustics professional.
Acoustics need to support the intended occupants, function and mood of the space. Who will be using the room? What will they be doing there? For example ….
Acoustics for conversation
There are many environments where people need to speak comfortably and hear easily. Speech discrimination is essential in schools for teaching and learning. In fact, there are usually regulated acoustic standards for classrooms, gymnasiums and specialty areas.
Meeting room acoustics: from large conference and boardrooms to small break-out spaces and private phone rooms, it’s all about conversation. Many businesses and other organizations have installed expensive AV or telephone systems to allow remote participation. Sound distortion here is irritating and unproductive.
In these environments, speech discrimination is key and the acoustic goal is to support that. Acoustic panels will be used to reduce sound reverberation enough to enhance clarity of speech.
Acoustics for a party
Other environments call for a little more “buzz”. When the atmosphere is more social or casual, we might include some music and want to be aware of the voices and energy of people around us. While the need for conversation in these social settings doesn’t go away, it’s not the only goal.
Restaurant acoustics: lively restaurants and clubs want an energetic mood and a social atmosphere. So we can get a little louder. A higher level of sound reverberation turns up the volume. The acoustics can be adjusted in a larger space, for quieter and louder areas.
A note on specialized acoustics: Performing and recording environments, such as concert halls and churches, will have specific and usually complex acoustics requirements. In these situations, a highly trained acoustic engineer will likely be engaged to plan and design the installations.
Acoustics for an age
Many people are surprised to learn that we begin to lose our hearing as young as our 30’s! And it’s worsened by exposure to loud noise levels, such as live music or high volume through our earbuds and headsets. It’s common now to hear even people in their 20’s complain about not being able to have conversation in a noisy restaurant. And every decade thereafter, it gets tougher!
So the older the occupants, the greater the need for acoustic absorption.
Acoustics for everything & everybody!
Often one space will have multiple usages and people in it. A restaurant with a bar area, perhaps an open kitchen as well as dining room seating. A workplace with employees of many ages and temperments (introverts are getting a lot of attention these days!) as well as areas for collaboration and areas for individual work.
In these situations, acoustics zones can usually be configured to match the functional ones and the treatments can be varied within the space. The restaurant can keep the bar area more lively and at the same time allow comfortable conversation over a meal. Workplaces can support both teamwork and individual wellbeing and productivity, with a variety of permanent and moveable fixtures.
Now that we’re clear on what we want to achieve, we can begin to plan the acoustic installation. Next posts in this series will talk about how to achieve the goals.
Acoustics With Design is a Canadian distributor bringing beautiful products to the Canadian acoustics market. This is the first in a series of posts on the subject of planning acoustic panel installations, that will address when, where and how acoustic panels can enhance built environments and user experiences.
Any questions or comments? Leave them below!
How Much Acoustic Panelling Do I Need? Part 2: Setting the Goal
When a room is too noisy, we usually just know it. It’s annoying!
However, the question of exactly ‘how much, too much noise’ can be a bit more complex. This, second in a series of posts on planning an acoustics installation, addresses how to begin the determination of how much acoustic panelling you will need. We talk about getting specific about your goal for your room acoustics (spoiler alert!) using the unit of measurement, “Reverberation Time”!
Once you’ve decided that you want acoustic treatment in a space (“How To Know When You Need Acoustic Panels In Your Room“) and you know what kind of effect you are going for (“What Kind of Acoustic Environment Do You Want?“), the next step is to express that goal in a way that will guide the installation planning. In other words, to acoustically quantify the goal.
Don’t worry — no need for training in advanced math or physics. This post is about room acoustics – not concert halls or recording studios – and intended to give you enough information to work comfortably and confidently with your acoustics professional. Read on for a great demonstration of reverberation time!
If you don’t work with acoustics as part of your everyday life, it can be a challenge to plan or correct for an acoustically appropriate space. We’ve all experienced uncomfortable, even unpleasant noisiness in everyday spaces where we work, shop, eat out and sometimes even where we live. The good news is that experts have defined “good” levels of noise for all these kinds of spaces, that help us benchmark and target our treatments.
How loud is it?
You’ve likely heard of “decibels” as an acoustical measure of the noise volume. HOW MUCH noise, the number of decibels (dB), quantifies the intensity of a sound. Mapped on a logarithmic scale, every additional 10 dB is experienced as about twice as loud.
Some examples: a whisper is about 30 dB and a nearby jet engine is 140 dB. Normal human speech is about 60 dB. We experience pain in our ears at around 125 dB – which is about mid-range noise level for rock concerts! (Protect your hearing – use headphones or earplugs!) Hearing damage and loss results from a combination of decibel level and time and begins at 8 hours exposure to 85 dB (less time at higher dBs), driving occupational safety regulations for hearing protection when work is noisy.
Obviously, the number of decibels in a room depends primarily on what’s happening in it, or passed through from external sources via open windows and doors or non-soundproof structural materials. (Note: preventing pass-through noise is done with specific building materials and techniques. Acoustic panels fitted afterward will not help.) Library users generally make a lot less noise than do partiers!
However, the room’s surface materials then play an important role in what happens after the sound is first produced.
Reverberation vs Absorption
Regardless of the volume of noise, its quality and our experience of it is greatly influenced by the environment in which it is heard. This video is a wonderful illustration of how the reverberation (or its lack) changes a sound in an open space vs an enclosed one and in spaces made of different surface materials.
(Appreciation and admiration to Touché Videoproduction Creative for this piece!)
Basically, sound waves travel until they they either dissipate or hit a barrier. Then, depending on the qualities of that barrier, the waves will be absorbed by it and/or bounced back in some proportion – that is, the sound will reverberate.
In an enclosed space, sound waves must either REVERBERATE or be ABSORBED. The RIGHT BALANCE of both is key to acoustic comfort. This will vary based on WHO is using the room and to what PURPOSE. Key to the discussion is this fact: excessive reverberation makes conversation difficult. The echoing sounds hurt speech clarity. We must make more effort both to speak and to hear. So, in any space where conversational clarity matters, acoustic absorption is required.
Mounting absorbent acoustic panels in a space otherwise filled with hard, reverberating surfaces, can make the difference between conversational clarity and comfort vs a difficult, dysfunctional room.
Quantify the Goal as RT (Reverberation time)
Acousticians use “Reverberation time“, or RT in the work of assessing and enhancing the noise level in a room. RT is the measure expressed in seconds of the time it takes for a sound to decay by 60 decibels … not coincidentally, about the usual level of the human voice.
A room that is surfaced (walls, floors and ceiling) in hard non-absorbent materials such as drywall, cement, glass, brick and wood, may have an RT in 3-4 second range or much more. This high amount will increase and distort sound, making conversation difficult. High RT will also increase the noise level (decibels) in the space, both directly and indirectly, as people will raise their voices in an effort to be heard above the ambient noise.
So, what’s a “good” RT? It depends on the activities and the occupants of the space:
- Workplace spaces such as meeting rooms and open offices need to prioritize speech clarity and minimize distractions. It’s hard to have a free-flowing, creative and productive conversation in an “echo-y” space where sound is bouncing around a lot. Video/teleconferencing adds to the challenges for everyone involved. An optimum RT for meeting rooms is often around 0.5 to 0.6 seconds.
- A restaurant, on the other hand, needs a different atmosphere and will want a higher overall RT – some reverb in the room will make it feel lively. A goal of 2.0 seconds RT might be more desirable. (Perhaps higher at the bar and lower for the cozy conversation dining booths!)
- For a home entertainment room where music and movies are the focus, we may want RT at 1.5 seconds or more to enjoy some resonance with that fabulous home theatre system.
Your goal might be stated within a range at first. The specific end goal will also be influenced by the needs of the people who will be using the space, the starting RT of the room, the space available for acoustic panelling and the budget. Your acoustics provider can work with you to arrive at the best result for your situation.
SO TAKE COMFORT in knowing that there is not a single “right” answer to the question of “How much acoustic panelling?” and take further comfort in knowing that you can easily get help in planning your acoustic installation. Other posts in this series will address calculating your sound absorption requirements and planning your installation, so you can work with your acoustics supplier to develop the plan that’s right for you.
Acoustics With Design is a Canadian distributor bringing beautiful acoustics products to interior designers and end-users. This is the second of a series of posts on the subject of acoustic panels, that will address when,where and how acoustic panels can enhance built environments and user experiences.
Any questions or comments? Leave them below!