Acoustic Challenges In Commercial Spaces
Acoustic Issues in Restaurants and Open Offices
General contractors are often called upon to reduce acoustic challenges in modern commercial spaces. For example, common design elements such as large pane windows offer increased daylighting and views of nature, but they also significantly increase the percentage of hard, reverberative surfaces in a space. Open office plans are notorious for the unexpected noise chambers they can become in pursuit of modern design and a collaborative, team environment.
Acoustically mindful design isn’t always a matter of stopping sound altogether, either. Restaurants, for example, perform best when the optimal level of ambient “buzz” fills the space. A dead silent room doesn’t inspire intimate conversation any more than a deafening roar.
As the importance of acoustics to a person’s experience in a given space continues to emerge, there is an accompanying push toward “ear-forward” design.
Restaurants and Offices Have the Greatest Acoustic Challenges
Restaurants pose the complex acoustic challenge of managing sound to very different ends in the kitchen and the dining room. Commercial kitchens are loaded with noisy equipment and fast paced food prep. In the back of the house, acoustic challenges center around employee wellness and speech clarity for the coordination of staff at multiple stations. Wellness comes into play, as extended exposure to decibel levels beyond 85-90 can cause permanent hearing impairment, and such environments can certainly meet and exceed these levels.
On the other hand, the front of the house—depending on the intended clientele and ambiance—faces the acoustic challenge of targeting a very specific level of “buzz.” The importance of acoustics to the facilitation of brand forward experiences cannot be overstated. In fact, too much or too little sound is the second most common complaint about a restaurant after quality of service.
Commercial Office Space
Open office floor plans borne of visions of collaborative problem solving have delivered just that. Yet, in many cases, they have also brought a significant increase in distracting, ambient noise. This is complicated further by the move toward hard-surfaced finish materials such as glass in large pane windows, exposed wood, and other surfaces that increase reverberation and loud noises.
It is important that such acoustic issues are addressed systematically, as workplace satisfaction is intimately linked to talent retention. Moreover, workplace productivity is greatly enhanced by a well-crafted union of the collaborative energy of open offices and a space that is quiet enough for individual, thought-heavy tasks.
Technically speaking, what causes acoustic challenges?
Sound reflects readily off of hard surfaces, as relatively little energy carried in the sound wave is absorbed into the surface material. As reflection builds upon reflection throughout a room, a web of competing sound waves gradually decays as they are incrementally absorbed by ambient surfaces. This is why a high school gymnasium, for example, is so often built as far from academic spaces as possible. The retention of previous sound in addition to the new sound creates a dramatic magnifying effect.
Inadequate Sound Isolation
In the event that an existing acoustic disturbance’s origin can be physically relocated within the space, all the better. Short of that, the best option is often to better isolate the sound through the use of various sound dampening technologies.
Tools for Mitigating Noise
What options exist to solve this problem?
The degree of sound absorption that a space will ideally receive is measured in sabins. Many factors are fed into a formula, all of which center around the usual suspects—surface flatness and hardness in a space, the number of opposing reverberative surfaces, and so forth. The beauty of this is the degree of acoustic precision that a contractor can target through a mathematically guided introduction of absorbent surfaces in the space.
Isolation extends beyond the idea of a single closed space. Instead, you should imagine intrusive acoustics as a submariner might think of water. In a submarine, there are locking vault doors at intervals to keep water where it ought to be. The same can be true of sound in established spaces for the simple fact that the structures likely already exist—they simply need to be fortified.
Sometimes the best solution is simply masking the sound with additional ambient sound, the hope being that frustratingly intrusive frequencies accompanied by a more serene counterpart are abated to some degree.
Strategic Applications of These Tools
What is the right point of attack: sound source, sound path, or sound receiver?
It is essential to have a keen awareness of your employees’ or customers’ perceptions of acoustics in a space. Strategically targeting an ambient “buzz” level for an atmosphere requires a thorough consideration of the optimal acoustic conditions for the performance of the space as a whole.
Minimizing impact forces, friction, and noise leakage from sources of intrusive acoustics is essential to a holistic acoustic solution. In existing structures, enhancing any existing sound-dampening insulation and utilizing impact force-reducing technologies are key steps to acoustic mitigation.
Interrupting the path of sound with barriers that precisely absorb, deflect, or contain acoustic energy is an essential component of ear-forward design. The path of acoustic travel often mimics that of foot travel. Therefore, corridors are prime opportunities for design-driven acoustic solutions such as clouds and baffles.
How do sound management solutions integrate into existing spaces?
Direct Mount Solutions
In the case of low or angled ceilings, direct mount solutions are ideal. They allow for the clean look of a traditional drywall ceiling while significantly improving acoustics. Beyond ceiling height, the fire protection and suppression system in a given space is a driving factor in the selection of direct mount solutions.
Most effective when used in conjunction with suspended ceilings, clouds provide a pragmatic opportunity for all creative statements. They are the most efficient sound absorption option, in that they have two distinct faces with which to absorb acoustic energy. They are also offered in a wide variety of colors, shapes and sizes to suit the needs of a given space.
Ideal for a soaring atrium and high-window spaces, baffles allow for a preservation of a user’s sense of the greatness of space by not interrupting views of upper reaches of the space. By maintaining a sense of height, baffles maintain the very openness that would otherwise be adding to ambient acoustics.
Beyond Simple Solutions
When might relatively simple fixes come up short?
As general contractors continue to give more attention to “ear-forward” design, a growing understanding of the best practices in approaching acoustic challenges is beginning to emerge.
Central to this emerging body of knowledge is the value in implementing a systematic design approach. Specifically, identifying the least invasive acoustic improvement for a space first and then progressing from there is key to achieving optimal ROI. Often times, this means beginning with acoustic absorption and then progressing to masking and finally isolation, although each space presents its own challenges — which call for a skilled Florida general contractor to parse.
Here at RCA Contractors, we have years of experience working to make your restaurant or commercial project as appealing as possible for your customers and employees. If you’re looking to start a new project or renovate your current space, but you’re concerned about acoustic challenges, reach out to us today. We’ll help make your vision a reality.