Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Designing for Acoustics in a CoWorking Space or Other Open Work Areas

A recent workspace with carpet tiles, offices with sidelights
and transoms.  (Located at AllEarth Renewables)
Recently I responded to a question of the Google CoWorking Group about ways to more effectively design for acoustics yet engage the sense of community CoWorking is known for.

How can such spaces meet the needs for louder members who often talk on the phone yet still create an inclusive, collaborative work community space?  Often CoWorking spaces have open work areas with members working side by side on rolling large tables like the libraries at Colleges of yesteryear.  Working out in the open, while extremely social and collaborative can have its challenges especially if you need to make an extended phone call or someone nearby does.  

One common solution is behavioral, people talk more softly and respectfully or they take the call outside to a porch or outside area.  Sometimes taking the call in a nearby office or conference room also works.  But what if you would like to stay sitting at your work area and talk more loudly or can't move your materials so easily?  It's kind of a pain to schlep binders or papers outside if you need to refer to them etc.

So here's a few design strategies which can apply also to open work areas in more traditional office settings.  Some are fairly simple, others are more complicated and have some cost.  However if you abide by the maxim of you get what you pay for that's a good place to start.  Building awareness of using reflective and sound absorptive materials and space planning strategies is a good place to start.  Generally, consider doing a combination of solutions and trying out different ideas, "tuning" you space over time.

Wall Hanging by Joyce DiCianna, HR Manager at
AllEarth Renewables, Furniture by Pompanoosac
Mills. (AllEarth Renewables)
  • Selecting a Good Space: To promote the openness and interactivity found in collaborative environments such as CoWorking Space look for spaces to rent or buildings to buy with a fairly simple building shell hopefully with fairly high ceilings and access to daylight, parking, bus-lines, rail lines and access to the internet.  Former street front level retail spaces are often good locations having these characteristics. (Concerned about carbon footprint and sustainability issues? Then select a location easy to bike, walk, take a bus or train to.  It's counter intuitive to some, but highly dense urban areas are highly resource efficient and effective with more inhabitants per acre than more rural areas. Finding a LEED certified building is even better, but more on that another time.)   
  • Sound Deadening Floor Coverings: If you have highly reflective floor surfaces such as concrete, wood floors or floor tiles consider installing carpet squares or area rugs in open office / common work areas.  There are a number of manufacturer's such as Interface Flor, Mannington, Shaw Contract Group, Tandus to name a few who have solutions which can help treat lively areas with floor coverings.  The fibers in carpeting and carpet squares and resilient backing helping cut down sound.  These same manufacturer's all offer various kinds of eco friendly lines, recycling and financing programs attractive to owners.
  • Ceiling Treatments, Sound Clouds, Wall Panels: Another strategy is installing acoustical ceiling treatments like hanging sound clouds over work areas.  A simple version of this is installing higher performance ceiling tile from companies such as CertainTeed, Armstrong and USG to name a few.  You can use 2x2 or 2x4 or more unique tiles encased in decorative metal trim creating distinct "visual islands" and focal points within a large open spaces.  Combined the sound deadening qualities of tiles with attractive linear pendant up and down lighting zones and you can create attractive open work areas.  You can also install Tectum or other similar another sound absorbing product directly to ceilings or the underside of floor pans or on walls.  If sustainability concerns such as recycled content, sourcing and indoor air quality are strongly desired work with your architect or interior designer to select choices which provide acoustical performance while balancing these concerns.  Wall-hangings such as quilts can serve as focal points visually but also provide acoustical relief in targeted areas. 
  • Gradation of Walled Meeting, Teaming and Individualized Work areas: By providing a variety of larger to small closed walled work areas your CoWorking or open areas can integrate both the lively collaborative open areas and "away" spaces into your space.  Doing so you can build spaces suitable for small 2-3 person meetings, larger team meetings rooms for 5-12 and smaller highly focused head down quiet spaces.  To maximize the investment install sound insulation batts and run the walls all the way up to the underside of the floor or roof deck with foam insulation at the joint to limit sound transmission between spaces.  To create a sense of inclusiveness between  nearby by open work spaces install large glass sidelights next to doors into these rooms as well as consider transom windows to allow borrowed daylight in and reduce lighting usage.
  • Varying Ceiling and Wall Surface Angles:  In addition to the other strategies, you can further control unwanted echoes and noise communication by varying the reflective or hard surfaces of drywall partitions, suspended ceiling elements, wall panels.  Your designer can subtly design these moves into your space without incurring significant added construction cost. Adding this strategy to the design palette also can enhance your space's uniqueness as compared to more standard tenant-fitup approaches.
  • Avoid placing of Curved Surfaces in Key Spaces: If you want concave curved surfaces as part of the interior architecture locate the center of the arc or curve element outside of the space.  Doing this will ensure your space will not echo in these curving areas.  Echoing spaces are not great to work in.  That's why round or cylindrical interior spaces while attractive aren't necessarily great acoustically without attending to locating their center points outside of the space.
Hope this helps!  Remember, work with a seasoned architect or interior designer when designing your spaces.  Their involvement can be merely advisory with limited drawings and at a lower cost to full design services taking these and other issues into account to create the high value high performing workplace.  But they can help you look at the big picture of all these moving parts.  To optimize collaborative CoWorking style spaces or other similar open work areas think holistically about using combination of design strategies like the ones above to create more enjoyable and productive work spaces. 

Contact me if you need further advice or have other questions.


1 comment:

Barry King said...

When will the open office / closed office pendulum swing back?

Doors are not evil.

Most professions need extended time in head down quiet space to get work done efficiently. Introverts need design support to collaborate, maybe? So design adjacent collaborative space that doesn't disrupt those with their heads down. Why is this hard or controversial any more? We have data: Recommended reading "Peopleware" by DeMarco etal.