September 11, 2017
By Steve Titus, B.A.Sc., P.Eng.
Moving offices is not enjoyable, but when a business outgrows its existing space, it has no choice but to find another option. Relocation can bring some negative reactions from employees, but finding a new place to call home does have it benefits. In the case of this author’s firm, Aercoustics Engineering, the company’s old office did not reflect its evolving state; it was a traditional space with a mix of private offices and open areas, poorly laid out and incapable of handling organic growth.
The meeting rooms were noisy because the mechanical system was not properly designed, and employees were unable to move around and collaborate with others because of a lack of connectivity. Meeting rooms were enclosed and not wired to central servers, making it difficult to simply walk in and work. This meant people were essentially tied to their desks if they needed to use their computers or telephones. Unfortunately, the old space could not accommodate how the company envisioned its space, so the team moved to a larger, more customized office to accommodate its growing team and encourage more collaboration.
As experts in noise and vibration control, the Aercoustics team has been involved in designing multiple offices. When it was time to design the company’s own new space, the goal was to take these experts’ combined experience and create a modern facility that would serve as a real-life example of how to successfully build an open office. It would act as a case study for clients to see first-hand some of the concepts discussed in design meetings, which are often difficult to grasp without a visual.
Addressing noise concerns in the design
The goal was to have a large, open office that included a flexible open café area, meeting rooms with one glass wall, and smaller huddle areas, as well as private rooms in which to make phone calls. Over the years, several clients had requested similar designs, but had a number of concerns about acoustic performance in this office style, including:
This last issue was a key challenge for the team, because the goal was to design walls that were not built up to the ceiling, but still maintain adequate privacy for each room.
The team considered each concern and addressed it in the office design to demonstrate how the right design and amount of acoustic absorption can make an open office work without compromising privacy.
The office design
The 836-m2 (9000-sf) space has 6- to 9-m (20- to 30-ft) high ceilings, with the only walls going from the floor to the structure above found in the equipment room. One of the biggest challenges was finding a way to minimize sound transfer without taking the walls all the way up to the structure above. Without floor-to-ceiling walls, there is the potential for a very noisy environment that could impact productivity. To avoid this, the structure was treated with acoustically absorbent material, which helped to control the reverberation time and create a comfortable noise level. Instead of viewing the noise from the HVAC as an issue, the project team for the new office used it as a sound masking system.
The various meeting rooms were constructed slightly differently to demonstrate various levels of privacy.
Smaller telephone rooms were incorporated into the design for private calls or conversations. These rooms make use of large sliding wood doors with minimal acoustic seals and a higher-performing acoustic ceiling tile. The tile was selected specifically because it provides both acoustic absorption and the highest level of sound isolation for a ceiling tile, with a ceiling attenuation class (CAC) rating of 43. There is no gypsum ceiling separating these rooms, so there was an understanding there would be some audible noise intrusions, but not so much it would disrupt a conference call or focused work. To facilitate being able to work from the telephone rooms, each one is connected to the IT system.
The huddle rooms are designed to seat four people comfortably and are used primarily to collaborate with others without disturbing the rest of the team. These rooms required a higher degree of sound isolation than the telephone rooms, so gypsum ceilings were used. However, the front walls of each one comprise a commonly used modular glass product and a sliding glass door with brush seals. Their intended usage and location on the perimeter of the office mean this design provides enough privacy for users while creating an open feel.
The larger meeting rooms were constructed with gypsum ceilings and modular glass walls, as well as large, heavy sliding wood doors with no acoustic seals. Typically, sliding doors are fairly poor at sound isolation because they cannot be sealed and tend to be lighter weight. However, by incorporating customized heavy wooden sliding doors, the level of isolation and privacy achieved by these rooms has been maximized while maintaining a modern esthetic.
While the glass windows in the meeting rooms provide greater levels of isolation compared to a huddle room, there are some expected noise intrusions during periods of high activity. However, this was considered acceptable and unlikely to disturb any meetings happening in the room.
Offices generate noise, but it is much easier to plan for how to deal with noise than try to fix it later. When renovating or moving offices, it is important to ensure the design takes noise into consideration. Adding features to help minimize sound transfer will increase the design budget, but paying for it at the outset is much more cost-effective than having to tear down walls or add acoustic tiles later in order to avoid significant loss in productivity due to distractions.
For Aercoustics, the new space was a labour of love, which now accommodates the entire team and, more importantly, reflects the strategies the company wants to communicate to customers, prospects, and potential employees. The spaces are being used as designed, and noise levels in the office benefit from the acoustical considerations made before construction.
Steve Titus, B.A.Sc., P.Eng., brings more than a decade of experience to being president and CEO of Aercoustics Engineering Limited, a privately held firm specializing in fostering innovation in acoustics, vibration, and noise control. Over his career, he has been responsible for the acoustical design and delivery of several high-profile projects such as the Sick Kids Research Tower, Corus Quay, Thunder Bay Courthouse, and St. Lawrence Market North redevelopment. Titus is co-chair for Canstruction Toronto, and he sits on the Finance and Audit Committee of the Consulting Engineers of Ontario (CEO). He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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