How to tackle acoustics in commercial spaces

Horton Interiors Design Director, Neelanchana Kumar, explores the growing trend for acoustic products.

Several factors have made acoustics more of a priority for clients in the past few years, including the growth in collaborative working environments, an emphasis on workplace wellbeing, plus an understanding of its role in increasing productivity and revenue. As a result, we’re seeing impressive advancements and innovative solutions in acoustic products. Globally, the acoustics market was valued at USD 14140 million in 2022 and is anticipated to reach USD 18250 million by 2029; it’s a demand we’re definitely seeing reflected here in this region.

What is acoustic quality?

Acoustic quality refers to how the sound is managed and controlled. It’s all about creating a comfortable and pleasant sound environment for users, considering several aspects:

  1. Noise control: This means keeping unwanted external sounds, like traffic or construction noise, from disturbing the peace or causing a distraction indoors. As more and more offices go open plan, noise control is a top concern.
  2. Sound insulation: Good insulation prevents sound from traveling between different areas within the space. For example, it ensures that noise from a busy area like an open workstation or kitchen doesn’t disrupt the quiet in a private office or meeting room.
  3. Room acoustics: This looks at how the sound behaves in a particular room. It involves controlling factors such as echo, reverberation, and reflections to create the right sound environment for specific activities. For instance, a lecture hall might need longer reverberation times for clear speech, while a recording studio needs shorter reverberation times for accurate sound recording.
  4. Speech intelligibility: Even when there’s background noise, speech should be clearly understood. Good acoustic design ensures that people can communicate without straining or struggling to hear each other. It’s important for spaces where effective communication is essential.
  5. Sound masking: A technique that involves adding background sound, usually through special devices, to reduce the impact of other sounds. The idea is to create a more balanced sound environment, reduce distractions, and provide privacy. Sound masking is commonly used in open-plan offices and healthcare settings to enhance speech privacy and create a more comfortable atmosphere.

How do we tackle acoustics when designing for a client?

Tackling acoustics involves a collaborative and iterative process typically including the following:

  1. Understand the client’s needs: Considering the activities that will take place, the expected occupancy, and any acoustic challenges or concerns they may have.
  2. Conduct a site visit: Assess the existing conditions, including the architectural features, room dimensions, and potential sources of noise. Identify any acoustic issues or constraints that we need to overcome.
  3. Establish acoustic objectives: Establish clear acoustic objectives for the space, based on the individual needs and assessment. This may include criteria such as desired noise levels, speech intelligibility requirements, and reverberation time targets.
  4. Collaborate with acoustical consultants: If necessary, engage acoustical consultants or specialists to provide expertise and guidance. They can conduct detailed analyses, simulations, and measurements to assess the acoustic performance of the space and recommend appropriate solutions.
  5. Design for sound insulation: Incorporate strategies to minimize sound transmission between spaces. Perhaps specifying appropriate wall, floor, and ceiling constructions with suitable sound insulation materials. It could also include strategically placing doors, windows, and sound barriers to prevent noise leakage.
  6. Consider room acoustics: Design the space to achieve desired room acoustics based on its function. This may involve adjusting the room dimensions, using acoustic treatments such as sound-absorbing panels or diffusers, and employing appropriate finishes and materials that help control reflections and reverberation.
  7. Integrate mechanical and electrical systems: Collaborate with the mechanical and electrical engineering teams to ensure that HVAC systems, electrical equipment, and other building services are designed to minimize noise generation and optimize sound control.
  8. Specify appropriate materials and furnishings: Recommend or specify acoustically suitable materials, finishes, and furnishings that contribute to desired acoustic performance. This includes selecting sound-absorbing materials, carpets, ceiling tiles, and furniture that help reduce reverberation and control noise levels.
  9. Test and refine: Once the design is implemented, conduct acoustic tests and measurements to verify the achieved acoustic performance. If necessary, make adjustments or refinements to address any issues or deviations from the desired objectives.
  10. Ongoing monitoring and maintenance: Encourage the client to prioritize ongoing acoustic monitoring and maintenance to ensure that the space continues to meet the desired acoustic standards. This may involve periodic assessments, inspections, and potential adjustments to address any changes in use or conditions.

What’s new on the market?

As the understanding of acoustic challenges grows, and demand for better sound environments increases, researchers, engineers, and designers are developing exciting approaches to address acoustic issues.

  • Acoustic panels and tiles: Manufacturers are developing panels with improved sound-absorbing properties, enhanced aesthetics, and installation versatility. These can be customized with different colors, shapes, and patterns to blend seamlessly with the design while effectively reducing reverberation and improving sound quality. Example: Moov.
  • Acoustic fabrics: Specially designed fabrics with acoustic properties are gaining popularity. These fabrics are used in wall coverings, curtains, and upholstery to absorb sound and reduce echoes. They offer a visually appealing solution that integrates acoustic performance with the overall design aesthetic. Example: Kvadrat. 
  • Microperforated panels: Microperforated panels are panels with tiny holes that are precisely designed to absorb sound waves. These panels can be used in ceilings, walls, and other surfaces to achieve high sound absorption while maintaining a clean and minimalistic appearance. Example: Knauf – Cleano.
  • Sound masking systems: Sound masking systems use carefully calibrated ambient background noise to mask or reduce speech intelligibility and other intrusive sounds. These systems are commonly used in open-plan offices, healthcare facilities, and other spaces where privacy and speech privacy are important. 
  • Acoustic lighting: Lighting fixtures that incorporate acoustic properties have emerged as a dual-purpose solution. These fixtures combine lighting functionality with sound-absorbing materials, providing both illumination and acoustic treatment. Acoustic lighting fixtures are particularly useful in areas with limited wall surfaces for traditional acoustic treatments. Example: Flos
  • Adaptive acoustic solutions: These systems use sensors and intelligent algorithms to monitor and respond to acoustic conditions in real time. They can automatically adjust sound absorption, diffusion, or even sound masking levels based on the specific needs of the space and its occupants.
  • Sustainable acoustic materials: Manufacturers are exploring eco-friendly materials, like recycled fabrics and natural fibers, to create sound-absorbing products. These materials offer acoustic performance while minimizing the environmental impact.

For any advice on incorporating acoustic principles into your design get in touch. Also stay tuned for our upcoming blog on the most cost-effective ways to manage noise.