It's easy to think that ceilings are just there for looks. Unlike walls or floors, they don't meet an obvious functional need except to hide the plenum. And if the design goal is a contemporary, loft-like appearance, why not just eliminate the ceiling? Over the past decade, that's exactly what a growing number of spaces did. What's more, doing without the ceiling seemed a logical complement to an emphasis on green design.
But doing without ceilings meant giving up some of their important benefits. High on that list is acoustics.
In some open-plenum spaces, the lack of ceiling has had a negative impact on productivity. "It looked cool but no one could function," says Jason Gordon, president and chief executive officer with Heartland Acoustics & Interiors.
Consider a 2005 survey by researchers at the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California-Berkeley and at the International Centre for Indoor Environment and Energy at the University of Denmark, "Acoustical Quality in Office Workstations, as Assessed by Occupant Surveys." Survey respondents in private offices gave positive numbers when ranking their satisfaction of noise level and sound privacy. On the other hand, respondents in cubicles and open offices gave negative scores. In fact, more than half of cubicle-dwellers said that poor acoustics interfered with their ability to work.
Exacerbating the acoustical challenges has been the move from private offices and workstations to desking or bench systems. As this has occurred, the physical barriers between employees have been removed, says Niklas Moeller, vice president with K.R. Moeller Associates, the developers and manufacturers of the Logison Acoustic Network. "It becomes very difficult to offset the loss of physical separations."
With fewer surfaces left to absorb sounds, noise from conversations and equipment reverberates within the space. "You sacrifice acoustics in an extreme way," says Joann Davis Brayman, vice president of commercial marketing with Armstrong Building Products. "There's tons of noise but you can't hear the person across from you," she says.
"We spend a good portion of the day, even in the workplace, doing noise-generating activities," says Katherine Rupp, marketing manager with Lencore Acoustic Corporation. "It impacts us and the people around us." As a result, some level of acoustical treatments or absorbing material is needed in most facilities.
One solution is sometimes referred to as "clouds" or "canopies," Davis Brayman says. These are panels suspended from an open ceiling to provide acoustical absorbency and reduce noise levels. "They don't destroy the design intent but provide better performance for the occupants."
They also provide the architect ultimate design flexibility. "We're seeing more clouds and canopies," says Jim Strout, area manager with Performance Contracting Inc. "They're the new wave." They're often reserved for high profile space due to cost, he adds.
Another solution has been sound-absorbing panels that can be connected to the bottom of the floor above an open area, Gordon says. They absorb sound, while maintaining the look of an exposed structure. While some panels are formulated for use in offices, others have been developed for recreational areas, such as gyms and swimming pools.
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