When planning a room – or even a whole new building – most people focus on what it will look like when completed. What is often forgotten is what it’s going to SOUND like!
But when the project is complete and the space is occupied, the acoustic experience can become very important if it is not a good one. And after completion is often the worst time to address the acoustics. Solutions at this stage are more expensive and unplanned treatments can interfere with the original design intentions.
Designers, architects, contractors and even the layperson, can create acoustically effective spaces, with a bit of forethought.
The best time to think about the acoustics of a space is at the planning stage. That’s when you can ensure the most appropriate construction methods, surface materials and layout, and avoid costly re-fits afterward. Consider the following:
#1: How will the room be USED?
A corporate meeting room, a home theatre and a restaurant, for example, have very different acoustic requirements. The meeting room is all about the spoken word: people will be having converstions and they will want to talk and hear with clarity and comfort. A home theatre may be designed with more built-in resonance to enhance the quality of the audio in expensive entertainment systems. And a restaurant needs to be both lively and functional – have that “buzz factor” while at the same time allowing dinner conversation and clear communication with wait staff.
The intended use of a room has significant implications for its acoustic requirements.
#2: What’s OUTSIDE the room?
Is there need to soundproof the space from activities happening elsewhere? Noise entering a room from the street or from adjacent spaces is a very common complaint. Whether it’s the neighbours in the condo building or the guy in the next office or the traffic in the street … it’s intrusive!
If you need to block external noise, you must plan for this in construction. Specific soundproof architectural products such as doors, windows and drywall are available and building materials and techniques can be employed to help with sound insulation (soundproofing).
#3: What are the dimensions and shape?
Sound waves travel in a space until they hit a solid object; then they either bounce or are absorbed. (If allowed to travel far enough, sound waves will eventually dissipate, but at distances greater than found in built environments.) The shape of the room and the distances between opposite surfaces – floor and ceiling or facing walls – will determine the direction and speed of the sound reverberation. You can easily hear this in the difference in sound in a high ceilinged room vs a low ceilinged one.
The good news here is that almost any shape and size room can be made acoustically effective with sound absorptive material applied in appropriate quantity and position. And this isn’t hard to do, when it’s part of the planning stage.
#4: What SURFACE MATERIALS will you be using?
Have you noticed that restaurants have gotten noisier? At the same time as we’ve moved away from the carpets, drapes and lush upholstered seating of years ago, to today’s restaurant design trends of lots of hard surfaces, including wood, glass concrete and metal? Yup, there’s a correlation.
Hard surfaces will bounce more sound and make a room noisier. If your visual preference is for tile, drywall and other non-absorbent surfaces, you may end up with an acoustically disastrous room.
Consider opportunities to use acoustic ceiling materials, carpet on the floor, or acoustic panels on the walls and/or ceiling. And you won’t need to compromise on the esthetics! Designers and manufacturers are creating acoustic products that look great, are easy to install, and will enhance your space visually as well as acoustically.
With a bit of forethought, a room can be as functional and comfortable as it is beautiful. The time to think about the acoustics is in the early planning, so that the design, materials and construction can enhance the end result.
Have a design project in mind? Contact us with your planning questions!
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.
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