Acoustics
– an individual response

We can never switch off our hearing.That makes the acoustic environment a key element of any office landscape.The office staff should experience it as a pleasant background. But sound is experienced in different ways, a fact that planners must bear in mind.

Sound is complex. It is experienced in an extremely subjective way. So the first thing needed to create good acoustics in an open-plan office is to carry out a requirements analysis in which ideally everyone concerned should have their say.What do we actually hope to achieve? What do good acoustics mean for those who actually work in the office? ”The problems involved are never the same from one office to another,” says Alf Berntson, a civil engineer specialising in acoustics at consultants Artifon of Gothenburg. Office acoustics are just a part of their brief, which deals predominantly with environments designed specifically for sound, such as premises for opera and concerts. Nevertheless, offices are of increasing interest to them, especially of the openplan type.The decisive factor is whether the office staff work mostly together or each is ensconced in his/her own cocoon. If they are on the phone all the time, each focused on his/her own contacts, it soon becomes imperative to screen off the sound between employees. Everyone wants to concentrate on their own conversation without being disturbed by what others are saying. But if everyone works together and needs to communicate all the time, there is not the same need for screening. Indeed, screens would make their job harder. ”Requirements analyses are crucial,” says Alf Berntson.

The techniques used to solve acoustic problems are well established. It’s all a question of choice of material for the walls, floors and furniture. About setting up screens between certain workplaces as well as methods for damping the sound additionally where necessary. In larger premises, an acoustic carpet generating a background murmur can be laid,so that neighbouring voices are drowned in a general buzz. But this method is not equally suitable for smaller premises,where such sound can be experienced as merely disturbing. ”Sound is often experienced subliminally,” explains Alf Berntson. ”We have had cases where people got a sudden pain in their necks and complained of a draught. It turned out that they had interpreted certain background noises as the sound of ventilation and unconsciously felt a draught from an installation that didn’t even exist. Advances in digital sound technology have also broadened the scope of working more radically with background noise.To ”sculpture” sound as we are already used to doing with light. Åke Parmerud, a composer, and Olle Niklasson, a music technology journalist, run Audiotechture, an agency for acoustic architecture. They carve out spaces with sound and generate background acoustics based on subliminal sound.

Although it’s all around us, we hardly hear it at all. Noise from fans and other installations makes us tired, so that our minds become easily dulled without us even noticing it. Audiotechture masks the bad sounds with gentle mixtures of good sound, often taken from nature – sighing wind, murmuring water and birdsong. The levels are extremely low, but we notice the difference subliminally. The sounds of nature stimulate us, making us alert and awake. Even the general feeling of space can be affected.The audio architects point out that a room is experienced as larger if sounds from outside reach it. It’s as if the walls were torn down with the help of sound. ”And that’s just the beginning,” says Åke Parmerud. Creating space with sound has great potential.

Ingrid Sommar