Addressing noise concerns in restaurants

September 4, 2015

Kingfishers pub in Maple Ridge, B.C. provided a beautiful view for customers, but the glass wall and high vaulted ceiling contributed to long echeos and poor intelligibility. Broadway acoustic panels installed on the ceiling retained the esthetic, but fixed the sound issues. All photos courtesy Primacoustic[1]
Kingfishers pub in Maple Ridge, B.C. provided a beautiful view for customers, but the glass wall and high vaulted ceiling contributed to long echoes and poor intelligibility. Acoustic panels installed on the ceiling retained the esthetic, but fixed the sound issues. All photos courtesy Primacoustic

By Peter Janis
In a 2015 dining trends survey by Zagat[2], the number-two complaint by restaurant-goers, after service issues, was excessive ambient noise. People often have to speak excessively loud to be understood by their dining companions sitting next to them. This ambient noise and subsequent voice raising can be irritating and cause patrons to avoid future return visits. Therefore, lowering ambient noise can improve the restaurant’s profit.

To solve these issues one must identify what is occurring in these acoustically challenged spaces. When the sound generated by a music system, patrons conversing, staff communicating, and kitchen noise is combined, it builds up and reaches a point where the energy in the room is no longer able to be absorbed or dissipated. Moreover, design trends have evolved toward very open spaces (high ceilings) with hard surfaces (wood, metal, stone, tile, glass), which are very reflective of sound. This wide variety of sound in restaurants bounces off the reflective surfaces inside and increases the baseline volume, causing people to talk louder. The increased noise (noise floor) causes owners to increase the volume of the music, and this cycle is repeated resulting in a high volume, unintelligible mass of sound.

Some restaurateurs attempt to explain noise levels with various other justifications. For instance, some owners believe the ambient noise in a room makes it more exciting—hypothetically increasing alcohol sales or causing tables to turn over more quickly. Although these justifications may be true with a segment of a younger crowd, the real issue here is the clientele. Restaurant owners need to consider who they are trying to attract—and, more importantly, who are they inadvertently turning off.

Season 2 Top Chef Canada contestant, Trevor Bird has a Vancouver restaurant, Fable, which features exposed brick walls, a creative chalkboard wall, and an open-kitchen concept. With limited wall space to make acoustic improvements, stock beige fabric clouds were hung from the ceiling.[3]
Season 2 Top Chef Canada contestant, Trevor Bird has a Vancouver restaurant, Fable, which features exposed brick walls, a creative chalkboard wall, and an open-kitchen concept. With limited wall space to make acoustic improvements, stock beige fabric clouds were hung from the ceiling.

Addressing noise
In order to resolve the excess noise inherent in many restaurants, owners should incorporate acoustically absorbent materials—either as part of the initial design, or as an aftermarket addition. In the design phase, acoustic panels can be strategically placed within the ceiling structure or on walls and incorporated into the design of the space. Similarly, post-construction, ceilings and walls offer opportunities to help tailor the acoustics of the space.

Some restaurant owners hesitate to address acoustics or noise issues in their spaces because they believe the cost will be too high. While a concert hall or recording studio might see material costs reaching $50,000 to $100,000, most restaurants can be acoustically ‘repaired’ for between $2500 and $10,000 depending on their size.

Acoustic panels are porous devices hung on the walls or from the ceiling. Sound waves enter the panels causing the minute fibers to vibrate. This thermos-dynamic process essentially converts sound into heat. Most restaurants are in commercial areas, so attention must be paid to fire safety. For Canada panels safe for use in commercial applications must be tested by an independent lab to ensure they pass CAN/UL S108.

Photo 3[4]
These acoustic panels were installed on the walls and ceiling of a café in St. Petersburg, Russia. They were then painted by a local artist to add to the shop’s decor.

Selection and placement
The surface coverage of paneling varies depending on the panel used. For instance, when using a high-density glass wool panel, the most common coverage is between 20 to 25 per cent of the wall. Alternatively, panels can also be hung from the ceiling. This placement works equally as well. Placement is not critical—it is more about controlling and reducing the excessive energy buildup in a room by hanging panels wherever convenient.

The thickness and density of the panel dictate the absorption range—meaning the thicker the panel the lower the frequencies absorbed. The most common thickness is 50 mm (2 in.). This thickness will easily absorb energy down into the lower registers of the voice and help reduce low frequency rumble from a music system. If there are budget or space constraints, a 25-mm (1-in.) thick panel will help absorb most frequencies in the speech range. On the other hand, if live performances are held in the restaurant, one may want to consider adding a mix of 75-mm (3-in.) thick panels to the room to help control the deeper bass.

Architectural concerns
Owners are often concerned about acoustic panels integrating with the existing room esthetics. Most manufacturers offer basic neutral stock colours but panels can also be covered onsite using any decorative fabric as long as it is breathable. More recently, a paintable panel has been introduced. This enables the user to spray the panel onsite using standard latex paint to match or complement an existing colour scheme. They are available with straight or beveled edge, and are shipped in a white finish. Paintable panels can also be used as an artist would use a canvas.

Owners can easily fix the acoustics in a restaurant in a matter of hours if they have a screw gun and a little knowledge. Once done, they can be sure customers will return—as long as the food and service is up to expectation.

Peter-Janis-President-Primacoustic[5]Peter Janis is president of Primacoustic, a division of Radial Engineering Ltd, developed in 2000. Janis has over 35 years experience in the sound and music industry. He can be reached at info@radialeng.com[6]

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: http://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/photo-1.jpg
  2. Zagat: https://www.zagat.com/b/the-state-of-american-dining-in-2015
  3. [Image]: http://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Photo-2.jpg
  4. [Image]: http://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Photo-3.jpg
  5. [Image]: http://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Peter-Janis-President-Primacoustic.jpg
  6. info@radialeng.com: mailto:info@radialeng.com

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