Innovative materials for noise reduction in commercial spaces

Photos © Unsplash.
Photos © Unsplash.

 By Ryan Shure

Many types of buildings are considered commercial spaces. Commercial spaces are often large, bustling structures, required to withstand a high volume of human and machine traffic, more than a residential property. Managing sound transfer into and throughout a large commercial building can present a serious challenge. To help manage this issue, this article ranks seven innovative materials, from most to least comprehensive, which can reduce noise in commercial spaces.

Insulated concrete forms (ICFs)

Many times, the bustle inside the building is minor, compared to the commotion created by blaring traffic, strong winds, and pounding precipitation. If any of these factors are a concern, it is important to build with sound attenuation in mind.

This starts with the framing; structural steel is an outstanding material for framing commercial buildings thanks to its durability, but it is not the ideal option for soundproofing. A better choice would be ICF. Composed of interlocking insulation panels set by concrete on-site, ICF framing creates a solid, one-piece frame which does an exceptional job of preventing sound from transferring through the building envelope. Many exterior sounds are initially reflected by the concrete. Any waves that do pass through this initial defence are absorbed by the foam insulation core, ensuring few, if any, sound waves make their way to the building’s interior.

By providing sound-insulative framing, ICF represents the most impactful means of reducing noise in a commercial building, with structures using this material performing better than other buildings that use only surface-level noise mitigation techniques.

Office acoustic panels

Once the foundation and framing are in place, the only way to truly soundproof a space is by adding an insulative mass in which sound waves are absorbed, cancelled/blocked, and unable to travel further. However, most practices for adding insulative mass are considered unattractive.

For example, decoupling walls is a strong option for adding soundproofing mass. This involves separating walls into two sections, and the sound waves are lost in the chasm between them. In most applications, this involves adding an extra layer of drywall or some other type of “false front.” Not only does this cut into interior square footage, but it is not practical for open interiors with many windows. In addition, many types of sound-absorbing foam are bulky, unsightly, and inconvenient, leaving building managers with few interior design options.

To help add soundproofing mass without undermining style, decorative acoustic panels are gaining popularity in use for modern commercial buildings.1 Fabricated from a fibreglass core sheathed in decorative fabric, office acoustic panels feature a noise reduction coefficient (NRC) of 0.95, just short of the industry standard (one) for complete soundproofing. While this is an impressive figure, it is important to note that performance may vary based on the room’s shape and wall surface area. For example, lower frequency sounds tend to reverberate in the corners of rooms, so acoustic panels may not be as effective at absorbing these sounds in rooms with many sharp angles (consider bass traps for this purpose). In addition, it is recommended for acoustic panels to be mounted on 15 to 25 per cent of the wall area. Anything short of this will reduce the panels’ NRC.

However, adding sufficient acoustic panels should not detract from the area’s esthetics. In most scenarios, office acoustic panels adhere to the wall and are as subtle as a picture frame, with their decorative quality giving the impression of interior decor and not sound mitigation.

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