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distracting as the most insidious ringtone. “As building systems are getting
quieter, we have to be more cognizant of how to solve the acoustic challenges that quieter building systems create,” says Dave Madson, an interior
designer with CBT. One solution is sound masking systems that raise the
ambient noise level of an otherwise quiet space. These systems emit sound
(commonly compared to whooshing air) engineered to block the frequencies of human speech so that office neighbors’ conversations don’t distract
from an individual’s tasks. Cambridge Sound Management’s systems consist
of networks of 3-inch speakers, each weighing about as much as a baseball,
which are installed in the ceiling and project sound directly into the workplace. They’re controlled via a wall panel or a web-based interface. Sound
masking can be particularly handy when a design calls for unfinished and
exposed ceilings, since a few small speakers won’t ruin the sense of raw
authenticity and material honesty.
SOUND BARRIER BREAKTHROUGH?
This growing menu of options indicates that the acoustical design of spaces
won’t just be a niche concern for designers in the future. Storyk says that acoustics are on the verge of being integrated into design best practices. “Acoustics
is the ‘green’ of 10 years ago,” explains Daniel Monier, head of national sales
for BuzziSpace. He says designers are thinking through how to incorporate
better acoustics into all kinds of spaces, and he’s working with them earlier
and earlier in the design process.
The reasons for this, according to Storyk, are a function of demographics
and the evolving regulatory climate. As baby boomers get older and harder
of hearing, their need for perfectly attuned environments increases. And
since 2002, new acoustic standards for classroom acoustics (like ANSI S12.60,
Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements and Guidelines for Schools)
have been developed and adopted by several states.
Further public acceptance of the importance of acoustics will hinge on the
amount of transparency between manufacturers’ claims and their products’ real
level of performance, but there are no broad-based domestic certification bodies for acoustics that function like the non-profit Green Business Certification
Inc. (GBCI) does for sustainable buildings. In 2013, an acoustics certification
organization, Acoustic Facts, sprung up in Sweden. Acoustic Facts reviews
measurements from independent laboratories, and is funded by the product
manufacturers whose products they test. Storyk trusts small handfuls of independent labs (SoundKinetics, Johns Manville’s Technical Center, Riverbank
Acoustical Laboratories, IBM’s Acoustical Services) for product specifications.
If the current wave of acoustical privacy measures is driven by the need
to attenuate open plan offices to the desires of the people that work there,
the next wave might come from completely decoupling workers from their
offices. A Gallup poll from 2015 found that more than one-third of U.S. workers telecommute, and an entire industry of co-working spaces like We Work
have cropped up, catering to entrepreneurial millennials who want to design
software next to graphic designers and start-up public relations firms. There
are fewer and fewer reasons to come to a centralized office, but just as many
reasons to want acoustic privacy.
As such, Goodell says she’s on the lookout for “targeted acoustical products”
that create a hyper-localized acoustic barrier around a person, wherever they
might go. Madson notes this might include “active sound masking” devices that
listen with microphones to the noises going on around individuals, that then
emit opposing sound waves to specifically cancel out noise. Eventually, acoustic privacy might be as mobile as the workforce that requires it.
Zach Mortice is a freelance architectural journalist based in Chicago. He was previously
the managing editor at The American Institute of Architects.