Sounds like a plan

Karndean Flooring plays host as issues surrounding unwanted acoustics in the office are up for discussion.


Words by Geraldine James

Whether it's offices where you can't concentrate, restaurants where you can't hear what your dining companion is saying or domestic environments where you can hear your neighbours, noise is a major issue in interior design today. It's no surprise to learn that 80 million EU citizens live in unacceptably noisy areas according to the Institute of Acoustics.

A panel of design industry insiders gathered at London's Material Lab for a fascinating discussion on the challenges of acoustics in interior design, chaired by Paul Barratt, managing director of Karndean Flooring. The panel's experience ran the gamut of various sectors in interior design, from hospitality to workplace to residential.

London’s Materials Lab was the venue for a discussion

Diana Celella, director at DC Design, and chairman of Regional Directors of the Society of British and International Design (SBID) shared her experiences of the healthcare sector, which has its own unique acoustic requirements. 'It's a bigger and bigger part of this sector; it really was an under-considered area a few years ago,' she said. She described how dining rooms in care homes can be a real problem, where you have lots of hard surfaces and noisy implements being used, resulting in too much disorientating noise, which can be upsetting for residents, even making them angry and disruptive. 'We might use acoustic panels, acoustic room dividers or separate the space into smaller pockets. This ensures residents are calmer, you can keep staff a lot longer and there's less damage, so there is a financial consideration to it as well.'

London’s Materials Lab was the venue for a discussion

She added that a monetary tag could also be placed on restaurants without decent acoustics in that if you could hear the next table better than the person opposite you you'd most likely vote with your wallet and not return. Juliette Sherwood, director at design practice Sherwood Street, added that in hospitality environments striking a balance is key: 'You want a welcoming lounge area where you have some ambience but you don't want it to be echoing but neither do you want it completely silent.'

Victoria Evans, interior designer, The Drawing Room Interiors
Victoria Evans, interior designer, The Drawing Room Interiors

Offices are another place where getting acoustics right is crucial, as Nathan Watson, designer at Morgan Lovell described. 'Spaces are going more open-plan, which is good for collaboration but it's not good for concentration. If you look around the average office, about half the people are wearing headphones to block out noise. Somewhere like a call centre might also have to be partitioned off from the rest of the office,' he commented. This need to control the noise, he says, goes a long way to explain the resurgence in quiet areas and bookable meeting rooms, 'just somewhere to make a phone call or crunch some numbers. Sometimes we'll get a teleconferencing room that has to have a certain reverberation level as well'. Paul Barratt said it was interesting to note the productivity rate and how that undoubtedly increases when people have a place where they can concentrate in the office.

Juliette Sherwood, director, Sherwood Street
Juliette Sherwood, director, Sherwood Street

Watson talked about a range of acoustic solutions: 'You can use feature lighting or ceiling panels that simply drop down in a grid. These look fantastic and you're adding to the acoustic quality to the space.' Celella referred to the success of high-back chairs in the workplace, which enable confidential conversations to take place. The advantage of furniture with sound-muffling properties is economic too: clients can move them to their next premises, whereas the same can't always be said of partitions. Victoria Evans, interior designer The Drawing Room Interiors, brought up the issue of noise travelling between rooms. 'You don't want to hear what's in the next room because it might be a completely different situation.

Chair Paul Barratt, managing director, Karndean Flooring
Chair Paul Barratt, Managing Director, Karndean Flooring

For instance, you might have a boardroom next to the reception and you don't want the two to cross.' That's why, she explained, plasma televisions are often found in reception areas because they mask noise so well. Watson added: 'It's also about where your office is located. Is there a lot of traffic outside? If you have a lot of hard surfaces in there, it's about getting some softer ones in there too.' Sherwood agreed about the importance of location. 'At the project at Borough Market I am working on, windows are the biggest concern. You've the noise from the trains outside so it's about getting the sound right on the inside.'

Nathan Watson, designer, Morgan Lovell
Nathan Watson, designer, Morgan Lovell

As to whose responsibility it is to consider acoustics, the panel agreed that while architects consider the impact of noise from room to room, the same thought isn't always applied to the way noise works within a space. 'If an acoustic expert is in there with a client from the start they can advise on the proportions of the room and things like that. It's great having huge rooms but you have to think about how they function and how people feel within these spaces,' says Evans. 'It's not just the flooring or the wall coverings you use; it can even come down to putting some soft furnishings in there or screening.'

Celella has been working on a residential project where the client's relative, who has dementia, will live. 'They have brought in an acoustic expert to work alongside me. It's very unusual for pay extra for someone like that to come in. Although it's a normal domestic space, we've been looking at where the glass is, what we need to reflect. It's been interesting because there are lots of hard surfaces and it's about how we can deal with that through artwork and furnishings.' Indeed, Celella adds that she finds artwork to be a highly effective acoustic solution, either by using quilted sections or by incorporating whole acoustic panels within the piece.

Richard Healy, Baux (Relay Design Agency)
Richard Healy, Baux (Relay Design Agency)

All the panel participants agreed that managing clients' expectations was essential. Watson said: 'Clients think that if they put a wall up, it's going to stop the sound. It's not. If you have suspended ceilings for example, you've got noise travelling below and above.' Another factor was keeping a close check on ensuring the materials with acoustic properties originally specified for a project actually appear in the finished result and haven't been superseded by a cheaper, often acoustically inferior product, along the line.

'Acoustics are often a retrospective thing. They aren't thought about until afterwards,' says Celella. 'The thing is nobody can see the effects of using products with the acoustic properties you want, it's only after the event you experience them, which is why it's important to retain control,' says Celella. Sherwood concurs: 'It's often the first thing to go. In photographs, you can't hear sound.'

Diana Celella, director, DC Design, and chairman of Regional Directors of SBID
Diana Celella, Director, DC Design, and Chairman of Regional Directors of SBID

'It's not often that acoustics are a specific request from clients,' Evans said. 'If something looks good and it has acoustic properties that's really a side issue.' Richard Healy, Baux (Relay Design Agency) added: 'It'll be interesting to see whether acoustics will become a hot topic in the same way sustainability has. When something has a buzz around it, it becomes an intrinsic part of a project. There's been a lot of learning about sustainability in the past five years. We recycle a lot more now than we did.'

Whether through flooring, wall coverings, furnishings or even artwork, Paul Barratt summed proceedings up neatly by asking whether acoustics could really achieve the same prominence in the next few years...

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