Open office spaces with movable partitions and reconfigurable workstations have become more than a trend in office facility design. They are the new normal. As acoustical consultants, we work on open office spaces frequently, and we like to begin the conversation with something we call “The ABCs of Open Office Acoustics.”

Absorb – Block – Cover
Absorb, block, and cover are the ABCs of acoustical engineering for office acoustics.

Absorption seems to be the most familiar. People come to us considering acoustic treatment materials like ceiling tiles and wall panels. The principal of absorption is identifying how much sound needs to be “soaked up” or absorbed, to optimize the reflections in the space. And yes, there is an optimal amount. We don’t simply add as much absorption as possible. Too much absorption can make a space sound “dead,” which can be unnerving. We set a reverberation time criteria for each space, then we use computer models to help us design and configure the absorption solution.

The second consideration is Blocking sound. Similar to absorption, it’s not about blocking all the sounds, but rather blocking the right amount of the right sounds in the right way. The most common worker complaint in open office facilities is the noise level from all the other employees working nearby, especially when your desk is right next to the “Loud Talker”. Some complain of a lack of privacy between workstations, while others say the noisy environment distracts them and reduces their productivity. An additional challenge for acoustical consultants is to design sound blocking solutions for open office spaces where the office partition height may only be 48” or 60” high.

The final consideration is Covering, or “masking” the sound. Believe it or not, acoustical consultants do not always recommend making spaces quieter. In fact, an electronic sound masking system, which raises the background noise in order to increase worker privacy and productivity, may be ideal for an open office space. For more about sound masking, read our blog: How Does Sound Masking Work. Open office facilities usually need to be flexible and reconfigurable, so there may be limited opportunities for A) absorbing and B) blocking the sound. Covering some of the sound with an electronic sound masking system can be a great option if designed and deployed with precision.

Open office acoustics are complex, and so are the solutions. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. At Acoustics By Design, we specialize in resolving the acoustical issues in open office acoustics. We’re happy to help with your next new or existing open-office project.

Benjamin Wolf

Benjamin Wolf, INCE Bd. Cert. is a Senior Acoustical Consultant, in Portland, Oregon with a Master of Science in Architectural Acoustics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He specializes in analysis and recommendations for the spaces and structures needed to provide acoustically effective and comfortable environments. As part of his master’s thesis, he modeled accurate acoustical representations of several famous music performance venues allowing musicians to hear their performance simulated in those spaces, in real time, as if they were standing on stage. Ben serves in leadership as the Membership Secretary for the ASTM Committee E33 on Building and Environmental Acoustics. The committee currently has jurisdiction of 55 standards, published in the Annual Book of ASTM Standards. Ben is also the technical contact for the E336 standard (noise isolation testing). In his spare time, Ben plays bass trombone with a wide variety of local groups. He enjoys web design and recording live sound.

More Posts