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Silence in an Office Wouldn’t Be Good

Article March 14, 2019  |  Text by Lukáš Rozmajzl Text by Lukáš Rozmajzl

Hearing is, of course, one of our basic senses. And well-adjusted acoustics are among the most frequently mentioned parameters for a good work environment. So we’ve chatted up Iveta Králová from Saint-Gobain Ecophon regarding both noise and silence in offices… and even the acoustics of company toilets.

Do you like silence?

I’m a very sociable person. I like it when things around me are abuzz. I like sounds, but not noise.

So even in offices, your goal isn’t to create an environment where there’s silence? In that kind of environment, even the smallest sound stands out strongly.

Silence is not the solution; the solution is to retain sounds—the things we want to hear—in spaces, while eliminating noise. There’s no expectation that an office will have complete quiet. There will always be a certain source of sound and noise.

And after all, think of the phrase “calm before the storm,” that is, silence as an omen of something bad. If I were to come into the office and it was quiet everywhere, I’d think something was wrong. Maybe there’s a meeting that the rest of the firm is at without me?

HOW TO KEEP SOUND FROM SPREADING

What are the most common acoustics problems that companies turn to you with? Are they mainly concerned with the overall workplace noise level?

Generally yes, because the public sees acoustics as a question of noisiness. But noise level is only one out four basic parameters that we track. We measure reverberation time, speech comprehensibility, spatial damping, and noise level.

If we’re talking about large offices, the most frequent request is for us to reduce the noise level while also limited the spreading of noise, with a view to spatial damping. We then need to choose acoustic elements based on that.

What exactly does reverberation time show you?

Reverberation time, or just reverberation, is expressed in seconds. This is the time it takes for noise to drop by 60 decibels after a sound source goes silent. For open-spaces and meeting rooms, you want the shortest possible reverberation time. A reverberation time of about 1 second is acceptable. You can try this for yourself—when you clap in a room, how long do you hear the clap?

And how is the last factor that you mentioned, that is, speech comprehensibility, measured?

We monitor the ratio between a signal that we want to hear and unwanted noise. This is measured in decibels or in percent. Speech comprehensibility is key in places where we care about the spoken word. For offices, we address it the most in meeting rooms and rooms where people are skyping.

Acustic solution for RSJ company in the building called Florentinum

FROM THE GARAGE TO THE ROOF

Now let’s go through a traditional office building bottom to top and talk about the acoustics of individual spaces. Let’s start underground. Has a client ever turned to you with a request to adjust the acoustics of an underground garage?

When a client wants to work out noisiness in their building, the garage tends to be low-priority—it’s a place where it’s expected you’ll just arrive, park, and drive out. It’s not a place for communication.

Shopping centers, meanwhile, care about garage acoustics often. If you ride in and step out into a pleasant environment with, for example, music, you’ve got a whole different mood.

Let’s move up one floor, to the reception or lobby. Is this a space that should receive companies’ acoustics attention?

Definitely. This is the main space that all their employees go through and where every visitor arrives. Here’s where a company’s first impressions are made. The reception has to be an acoustically fine-tuned space. When a client arrives at the reception and states their name, the receptionist shouldn’t be asking for it again because it’s noisy and people can’t hear. That doesn’t leave a good impression.

Acustic solution for AppAgent offices in Prague

After that, you walk into the elevator…

...unless you’re using the stairs. I’m an exercise fan. One big challenge for me right now is how staircases are handled acoustically and where within a building they’re located. How can we do things to motivate people to choose the stairs? Would it help if they could scribble on the walls and scrawl messages for their workmates? It would make a building more pleasant if people had room for self-expression in a public place.

But in most buildings, the stairwells are hidden somewhere in the back behind the last elevator and behind a fire door, eh?

Exactly. And acoustics for stairwells receive no attention at all, just like in our building. It’s a shame. When a new building is being built and they’re thinking about how to create a good atmosphere for people, why not support them in getting exercise?

Acustic elements inside the Baťa's office

ONE COFFEE AND SILENCE, PLEASE

Now let’s move on to the offices. What’s the biggest mistake that people make here from the standpoint of spatial acoustics?

The biggest mistake is when spatial acoustics are forgotten about in the architectural phase. If you have to adapt the building after the fact, when the company is running and the seats are filled, the supplementary installations are difficult organization-wise.

The second big vice is that design often tops functionality. The offices may be beautiful, but they’re acoustically underdeveloped. Fortunately this is changing.

Modern offices also contain various food zones—open kitchens with seating, small cafes on every floor, etc. These refreshment or relaxation zones often aren’t structurally separated from the working spaces. How can their acoustics be set up so that tinkling silverware doesn’t distract people at their computers?

It depends on how a company approaches such spaces in terms of spatial acoustics. There are two different views. Either a company wants people to come from the office into this “restaurant” and feel different acoustics—they need a change. Then the assignment is to create a “noisy” space like what’s naturally in most restaurants.

Or the company expects that there will be so many noise sources in the given space that it could even be unpleasant to have coffee there. Then it will be good to dampen the space. We’ll be trying to eliminate the spreading of noise in that cafe.

Do any clients also worry about acoustics in the toilets?

Very few. And yet in Sweden, for example, it's a standard part of orders. In the Czech Republic, we most often encounter this when some sort of basic soffits, undersides for ceilings—whether they fill an acoustical function or not—are a part of the building’s furnishings. These are then installed everywhere—the hallways, the machine rooms, the technical rooms, and even the toilets.

Interior of Oracle Czech ofices in the Aviatica building situated in Prague-Jinonice