Architect's perspective - explaining acoustics to clients

The architects’ perspective – Explaining acoustics to clients

We were curious to find out how architects work with their clients on acoustics. What tricks do they have up their sleeve? When is it being discussed? We invited Nick Fordy from Woodhouse Workspace to do a guest post for us to get an architect’s perspective on room acoustics and how he works with his clients to promote the acoustic design in a project.


Acoustics – an elemental area of design

Acoustics are considered at a primary stage of design for all projects handled by us. It is an elemental area of design work and one that can also enhance the visual appeal of a scheme as well as the acoustic comfort.

We make it very clear to existing, new and potential clients that the acoustic performance of spaces within any building can have a dramatic effect on the performance of tasks taking place in those spaces. Often they don’t realise that the acoustics are influenced by the shape, size, activity, treatment of walls and floors and ceilings, number of people within a space, whether the windows are open or shut and a whole host of other influences.

There are more and more reports available pointing to how productivity and accuracy of tasks can be influenced for the worst by noise creeping in where it shouldn’t. This can be very useful to us when we talk to our clients, sometimes we need to be able to show objective facts and research that justifies our acoustic designs.


Discussing and defining the concept of noise

After introducing the concept of room acoustics and explaining why it matters we want them to understand what it is we’re talking about; what is noise?

Someone’s home environment and experience of noisy teenagers, the next-door neighbour mowing the lawn at inconvenient hours or personal and delicate discussions being heard from a rowing couple across the street is as relevant to the discussion here as the disturbing chatter of the water cooler herd. It all serves to explain the importance of acoustics and a good sound environment in ways that they can relate to.

We discuss the acoustic landscape, both existing and proposed, with a client and it helps to explain that noise is defined as unwanted sound.

Going into more detail, we describe simply that a sound that tests the acoustics within a space and tests the patience of the inhabitants, or their ability to work productively, can come from activity within the room or from an adjacent room, it can originate from outside, be intermittent, constant or one that occurs with regular frequency. In addition, clients also need to understand that noise is individual. Whilst we can probably all agree that a faulty alarm going off in a neighbouring building is universally disliked and is noise, one person’s soothing and relaxing music can become a very irritating and disruptive noise (apologies to fans of Robbie Williams!) especially when I am trying to write a complex report or construct an article for publication against an increasingly tight deadline.

The control or behaviour of sound in buildings, the acoustic performance, should be considered as important as keeping the rain out, providing adequate ventilation and maintaining the internal spaces at the correct temperature. Whilst some aspects of this subject are under the remit of management, to get the acoustic environment right so the staff within can do what is supposed to be done comfortably and without disturbance is very much a design consideration. Unwanted sound (noise!) has been associated with reduced cognitive performance and general office noise impacts workers ability to recall information and even to complete basic tasks. I don’t want to be trying to work out an intricate space plan whilst a colleague noisily devours a packet of crisps at the next workstation or a management team vigorously discusses the state of the nation in an adjacent meeting room.

This, of course, has an impact on the company’s bottom line and profitability.


Client communication is key

New ways of working, open plan environments and agile work strategies bring their own possibilities, challenges and opportunities. All of these strategies or concepts require lots of questions to clients, comparing their existing knowledge and current office environment with the expectations or aspirations of a relocation or refurbishment project.

Detailed discussion all around the subject of acoustics in the workplace is invaluable  to projects.
Discussions, questions and comparisons; all to deliver acoustically fit workspaces.

Detailed discussion all around the subject of acoustics in the workplace is invaluable in helping to determine the level of technical response to a brief as well as any application of decorative elements, for example, the specification of absorbent panels to walls or ceiling, shaped or coloured to match the design concept or client’s brand requirements.


Pointing out common pitfalls

Obviously, we also tend to use the team’s many years of experience in the field of workplace design, to point out the pitfalls of not designing properly for the expected acoustic landscape that a client is describing.

From our experience, these include areas such as manager’s offices, quiet rooms for study, a boardroom suitable for video conferencing to large numbers yet not allowing the message to be heard outside the door, positions of breakout spaces or busy receptions relative to the general workspace and so forth.

At the earliest opportunity and wherever possible, it is important to engage with acoustic experts, either in-house resources or specialists who are directly associated with products that have been, or will be, specified, or independent consultants who can provide an impartial study of what is required to meet a particular acoustic environment. The designer has an obligation to the client to call on all the resources at hand to provide an environment that works for the purpose it was intended.


High demands on the office space

We have noticed that occupants of office space no longer moderate their behaviour or activities in the workplace to their environment, for example, lowering their voices to prevent being heard or disturbing their adjacent working colleagues.

Occupants of office space today expect their environment to cope with anything they throw at it!

Clients expect rooms to be capable of performing on all kinds of levels; confidential discussions shouldn’t be heard outside the door however heated the discussion, colleagues should be able to spend large amounts of time on the phone without disturbing those around them, areas designed for particular work tasks will perform to support those tasks not only acoustically, but also aesthetically, environmentally and in every other way demanded by the brief.


So where does acoustics stand today?

Acoustic design is vital to the workplace environment and today, quite rightly, it takes it’s proper and deserved place at the table to sit with every other aspect required to meet a brief in delivering a successful workplace. I thought I’d end with an example:

Optimising the sound environment in conference roomsMedia company Proact recently appointed us to design their new offices in London, a particular brief requirement being acoustic privacy in meeting rooms when discussing product with clients.

The acoustic privacy was provided by specifying appropriate wall construction which allowed for the glazed feature wall to the front face of the room with company related manifestation applied for visual interest.

Absorbent finishes were applied to the end wall of each meeting room and also decorative panels suspended from the ceiling, not only helping with the acoustic environment within the room but also enhancing the acoustic privacy.


About the writer:

Writer of this article about architects and acoustics
Nick Fordy

  • Name: Nick Fordy, Independent Designer working with Woodhouse Workspace
  • Where do you live: In a little village called Tingewick in North Buckinghamshire.
  • Favourite sound: The summer dawn chorus. As I set off for work early in the morning, just to stand and listen to the amazing variety of birdsong is a great way to start the day.
  • How did you end up working with acoustics: In my first week as a student, a visit to the anechoic chamber woke me up to the importance of the acoustic environment.
  • What is it like to work with room acoustics in your country: The best thing about working with room acoustics is that clients are more and more educated about the subject, ask better and more informed questions and push the design team to explore the subject as a design opportunity and not just a necessary evil to be dealt with…
  • What trends do you see in room acoustics: Noise masking in the workplace has been around for a long time and has been regarded with some suspicion, today it seems to be gaining some traction with the move to more open and flexible office environments. I remain sceptical about using it as part of an initial design concept but can see its use as a tool in retrofitting existing space where there is a problem.
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