Acoustical Quality Issues in New Construction
By Bennett M. Brooks, P.E.

   Building owners and tenants in business and industry are focused on issues of quality more than ever before. The quality of the acoustical environment has quickly gained the attention of occupants of commercial office and retail spaces and industrial facilities.

   The acoustical environment is an "unseen" factor in how a building will ultimately be judged. If the acoustical environment is good, the space will be accepted. However, if the acoustical environment is bad, sooner or later the complaints will start to roll in. More often than not, this will happen just after the builders thought that they had met all of the project requirements and the job was complete. Of course, that is not the time to start a major retrofit to solve an acoustical problem!

   What is a good acoustical environment? Since sound is somewhat subjective in nature, good acoustics may mean different things to different people. Still, there are several general characteristics in commercial and industrial spaces which allow the acoustical quality to be measured, predicted and objectively evaluated.

   The background noise level may be the first thing that people notice about a space, particularly if the noise level is high. High levels of background noise in the commercial/industrial environment can cause serious, and costly, disruptions to the flow of business.

   Even moderate levels of background noise will interfere with telephone and face-to-face conversations. This disturbs communication and creates misunderstandings. Clear, understandable spoken communication is essential for today's business. Background noise can be particularly disturbing in meeting rooms and in spaces used for teleconferencing or multimedia presentations.

   Higher levels of noise can cause fatigue and lack of concentration, leading to a drop in worker productivity, especially in knowledge-based and high tech manufacturing businesses. Still higher levels of long term noise exposure can cause permanent hearing loss and other medical problems. All of these noise conditions are detrimental to the occupying business and ultimately to the building owner.

   Another way to judge the acoustical quality of a space is by the degree of sound isolation present between adjoining spaces in the building. No one wants to occupy an office where the conversations in the next office can be heard. Also, poor sound isolation works in the reverse direction. In one prominent law office, the partners' conference room had what seemed like a direct pipe into the ladies' lavatory. This undoubtedly caused for an interesting listening situation in both spaces! Clearly, speech privacy is an important acoustical quality issue.

   Preventing potential acoustical problems in the project design phase is much more effective, and considerably less costly, than a troublesome retrofit. Fortunately, the basic issues of noise control and sound isolation can be quantified for any type of commercial or industrial space, and so can be addressed by an engineering analysis. An acoustical engineering design for a building should be integrated with the other building design disciplines early in the project planning phase to achieve the best results.

   For example, the background noise levels can be tailored so that they are appropriate for the functional use of the space. Important noise sources, such as mechanical systems, or adjacent manufacturing areas can be identified, and construction solutions can be incorporated into the building plans. Walls and floor/ceiling assemblies, and HVAC systems, can be designed to provide the right amount of sound isolation. Even the aesthetic appeal of an auditorium can be calculated, allowing pleasing acoustics to be designed into the space.

   Just as a water tight roof may not be fully appreciated until it fails, a problem-free acoustical environment will pay dividends in occupant satisfaction. The wise owner/builder knows that planning, designing and building for good acoustics is a "sound" investment!

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