Changes in office behaviour, their use and even dizzying rental costs have seen acoustic design become one of the most important considerations in the development of successful modern offices. Paul Thompson reports.

The way we work has changed enormously since the turn of the 21st century. Now office space has to be as flexible as possible to make sure it provides an environment conducive to performance for all staff members. And while the sounding of the death knell for the open plan office might be a little over the top, modern office design has evolved considerably from the traditional office environment, and it continues to do so.

“We are in an age where we have started to recognise the effect that sensory inputs can have on staff  comfort, health and ultimately productivity. The most successful companies are those that ensure their offices are able to provide their staff with space they are comfortable working in,” commented Joe Cilia, technical manager at FIS.

One of the most important areas of comfort is that of noise. The chatty, buzzy atmosphere of a busy office, open to input from all sides, can deliver the free-flow of shared ideas and intellect. But while that may be the perfect environment for many, there are times when the very setting designed to encourage discourse actually provides distraction. And that distraction can have a detrimental effect on productivity.

“It is hard for people who have been distracted from the work they were doing to get straight back to where they left off.  Estimates point at 15 minutes.  If that happens four times a day, you have lost an hour. Now  multiply that across your  workforce. Large companies could be looking at huge amounts of lost, unproductive time,” explained Mr Cilia.

Modern design trends do not help. The open soffited concrete ceiling office, proving popular in newly built developments thanks to its thermal sink qualities that provide a big tick in the BREEAM sustainability scorecard, can hamper its acoustic performance. The plethora of hard surfaces and screens in the modern office can also provide challenges.

Fortunately, the importance of providing comfortable working space, breakout areas, small single working zones and meeting rooms within the office environment is becoming well recognised. Acoustic consultants and experts are increasingly being drafted in at earlier stages of a new build or refurbishment project to cover this issue. There is some way to go, though, according to Anthony Brown, sales and marketing  director at office and interior specialist BW.

“Where clients have already been through recent refurbishment projects, we generally find they  employ consultants specifically to deal with the acoustic  performance. When clients are relatively inexperienced, it is often not the case. I would always  recommend dealing with the  working office acoustics at the  outset rather than bringing an expert in further down the line,”  he explained.

And with acoustic issues  becoming ever more complicated as companies endeavour to squeeze more out of their office footprint, the challenge for acoustic specialists and contractors is becoming greater.

The BW team has recently delivered a complicated project for international cosmetic company Estée Lauder which tested the  full gamut of acoustic design.  “The client wanted two floors of training space within the office building designed to offer specific facilities for each of their brands. We needed to provide  acoustically sealed rooms that could be used to recreate  individual sales floors. This could involve loud music playing but we still had to cater for those staff working in the rest of the office and ensure they wouldn’t be  distracted. It was a very  complicated scheme,” explained BW operations director Peter Nagle.

Getting value for money from their office space is an imperative for clients but it can be tricky for them to see exactly where they should spend their cash. Strategic spend can prove pivotal, according to Michael Page, joint managing director of workplace consultant Saracen Interiors. “Often, it’s all about budget. But we’d be falling short if we didn’t advise clients on what can be achieved by spending a bit more in certain areas. For instance, a small upgrade on floor or ceiling tiles can make a significant difference and, in doing so, pave the way for a happier and more-focused team,” he said.

Optimising office space is a common theme, particularly with purchase or rental prices per square metre at such astronomic levels. A good acoustic design can help maximise its potential and there are plenty of products on the market that are more than capable of helping, according to Sektor Interior Solutions’ sales  director, Steve Crompton.  “Modern glass partitioning for example has fantastic acoustic properties and by using it we can reduce the footprint of an office. It feels bigger to users. There are also plenty of products that can be specified to mitigate some of the noise caused by reverberation from around the hard, shiny  surfaces in offices, but we would like to be talking to architects, clients, designers and end-users  as early as possible,” said Mr Crompton, adding, “One cap doesn’t fit all and we need to be involved early on to make sure the client gets the best possible office on delivery.”

That early involvement is a call heard across the industry. Experts are in the best position to deliver their expertise when a project is still on the drawing board. By waiting until there is a crisis, some of the benefit of using that expertise has been lost. “The focus has changed. Acoustics is an age-old issue and in areas such as meeting rooms we have been able to address it. Acoustics throughout the rest of the office is the next stage in the evolution of our understanding.  I believe it is better for those issues to be addressed through good acoustic design at the beginning of a project rather than being seen as a problem to solve at the end,” concluded Mr Brown of BW.