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The objective for facility managers in open plan offices is to leverage the benefits of open office designs while minimizing distractions. A range of acoustical goals come into play, says Jeffrey Fullerton, director of architectural acoustics with Acentech. These include controlling the noise in common areas, creating some level of privacy and sound absorption for workers at their desks, and enabling privacy in rooms where confidential discussions occur.
Specific needs and objectives vary from one type of building to another, Fullerton adds. Government offices, for instance, often require high levels of privacy. In most commercial buildings, the goal is to minimize distracting noises and provide enough sound absorption or background sound that employees can concentrate. In a few businesses — advertising comes to mind — managers actually may want a slightly higher noise level to project an environment of excitement and busyness.
Whatever the specific goals, it's easiest to achieve them when the building is designed with acoustics in mind from the start, says Raj Patel, principal with Arup, an engineering and consulting firm. In fact, in many countries, building codes require owners to consider the noise environment around the site, such as traffic or plane noise, when designing and building a facility. While this typically isn't required in the United States it still should be considered. That's particularly true if workers will be able to open the windows on the building, he says.
If the acoustical environment isn't considered until the design or construction processes already have begun, the costs to remedy any noise problems tend to spike, says Michael Schwob, principal and director of technology services with JBA Consulting Engineers. That's because the resolution often will require tearing into new construction and working after hours so that employees aren't disturbed. Moreover, the likelihood that you'll be able to satisfactorily resolve the problems drops, as the proper solution may simply have become cost-prohibitive.