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The Big Noise

Posted on Sun, 2020-03-22 10:18 by SPACE

Thought Piece: in the wake of new research about the disruptive effect of noise in the working environment it is appropriate that we take a closer look at this troublesome phenomenon which is all set to undermine the progress that has been made in recent office design.

Noise is an emotive subject at the best of times but in the world of office design it seems to be becoming even more of a ‘bête noire’. If people feel they can’t concentrate when they want to, they can be driven rapidly to distraction, and what was once the great positive about open plan offices is suddenly becoming its Achilles Heel.

The fascinating thing about noise (if one can allow oneself the luxury of stepping back to look at it objectively) is that it is not just a physical phenomenon but a psycho-physical phenomenon. The tapping of a pencil is not so much an issue of decibels therefore as something more akin to water torture. It takes on an importance way beyond its physical characteristics, and can completely destroy concentration – worse than that, it can give rise to anger which destroys one’s total frame of mind. In stopping to see how best to deal this current ‘bête noire’ therefore one needs to be aware of so much more than the sound reduction properties of plasterboard as opposed to glass.

The other thing that confuses our understanding of noise is that it is bound up with other cultural and psychological issues. How do you shut out noise therefore? Put up a wall or preferably four walls and a door? In other words, noise (or the control of noise) becomes almost immediately intertwined with all the connotations of a room: status, actual confidentiality (as opposed to lack of disturbance), issues of cost, flexibility, business style.

And to suggest that one might separate out these different issues is almost impossible – yet separate them out to some extent we must, if we are going to be able to deal with the issue non-emotively.

For the individual concerned the physical and philosophical problem might not seem so complicated. Why not give me a room, and preferably one where I can be the person to close the door or not? I used to have a room, it worked fine. Who are these people who are telling me what I can or cannot do and are preventing me from doing my job?

To answer this and to understand how we have got into our current pickle it is necessary to look back briefly into the history of office design. Thus, there was once a time when people communicated by writing letters by hand and when life was simply structured into bosses with secretaries and a certain number of assistants. But then came technology and the massive increase in both the amount of information that could be handled and the speed that we came to expect in dealing with it. Squads of typists and clerks in open plan offices became surpassed by ‘Bürolandschaft’ and furniture cubicles. We then started to appreciate that this was leading to a different type of inadequacy – the lack of serendipitous communication and interaction that generates quality of information exchange, and the kind of flexibility and change that creative organisations depend on.

Fast forward to the current best thinking in office design, the notion of an ‘agile office’. The concept is based on two powerful ideas: first, that people work differently at different times and according to their own preferences. This suggests we need multiple work settings, purposely designed to meet these different ‘work modes’, including head down concentration or ‘full bhoona’ acoustic privacy. Instead of a bit of ‘one size fits all’ general open plan office that doesn’t particularly suit anyone therefore, the concept suggests that individuals should move around between bespoke work settings with all the attendant benefits of interaction and exercise that this implies. The second idea embodied within the agile concept is that of optimum utilisation, the idea that, appropriately organised, the different specialist work settings can be utilised by different people at different times thereby reducing the amount of time ‘desk spaces’ lie fallow. Appropriate sharing can thereby reduce the total amount of space required, and thereby an increasingly significant business overhead.

On the face of it therefore we have at our disposal a far more sophisticated notion of office design than used to exist, and one that theoretically deals with noise and privacy and lack of distraction exactly like one might want it. Why then the kickback that we are seeing on the ‘modern’ office (Dr Wolgang Babish of the German Federal Environmental Agency et al)?

The first reason of course is that most people’s experience of the ‘modern’ office is probably not a carefully designed ‘agile office’ but a very poorly designed slice of ‘open plan’ which has come about largely thanks to the removal of enclosed offices for cost purposes. The second reason is that the concept of noise is still poorly understood by most lay person ‘users’, if not by architects/space planners.

To return therefore to the physical aspects of noise control. There is a world of difference between reducing reverberation times and actually blocking noise transfer.

In other words, it is necessary to be technically accurate when talking about and dealing with issues of noise, appreciating that much of what is claimed in marketing material is, shall we say, “deliberately vague”. Soft furnishings and ceiling panels do not block out noise therefore, though they might perform a very useful function in modifying sound quality. Added to this there is the significant aspect of expectation, which starts to mix the physical aspects of noise control once again with the psychological.

Provide a room therefore where the walls do not go above the suspended ceiling or are compromised by large ventilation ducts that go through them, or inadequate filling of holes round the perimeter, and users will be disappointed and increasingly cynical about their concerns being taken seriously. Provide something on the other hand that is clearly open and there are no expectations that voices are being blocked, and behaviour might just be modified and expectations adjusted.

Possibly the biggest concept to get clarified therefore in any discussion about noise is the difference between noise omission and dealing with lack of distraction. Get the expectations right concerning these two and we have half a chance in solving the ultimate problem.

But, might ask the user, if full isolation provides for ‘lack of distraction’ then why not provide it, why quibble about the rights and wrongs of these half measures? The answer goes back to some extent to the ways in which our notions of good office design have evolved and require to take into account such issues as flexibility and cost, not to mention the subtler issues of interaction and creativity.

In addition, there is the need to put one’s limited resources where they can best count. So, if there is no need for genuine privacy with all its implications of cost, inflexibility and lack of interaction, why incur these difficulties? If one can so modify noise that it is unintelligible or blends more with the background ‘buzz’ of the office, this might be all that is required. One needs therefore to understand, to a degree, the effect of ‘muffling’ noise and creating micro-environments where “noise shadows” can provide limited areas of acoustic privacy.

But even these slight subtleties tend to get crowded out in an emotionally charged discussion. A successful response is therefore as much to do with how one deals with the problem as to the design solution itself. The exciting thing about design, or at least the great challenge for designers is in creating an optimum balance, not a bureaucratic compromise; that new way of putting things together which gives you something ‘extra’, something more than you had bargained for. It is something that can occur in the privacy of the design studio but can equally come about through the messy business of team working. And if this outcome can be jointly-reached, then there are attendant benefits.

In other words the process has as much to offer as the product. In such a working arrangement compromises between competing priorities can be less of a disappointment, and less than perfect solutions can be understood and accepted. This is where co-design or effective staff engagement is coming into its own right, where engagement might be the new ingredient to add to the concept of agile working and that “something” which might serve to further unlock the issue of troublesome noise.

The irony of many open plan offices is that they are almost too quiet. People adjust their behaviour radically and in good ‘agile’ offices people wanting to discuss something or being likely to get steamed up over a telephone conversation, rapidly learn to move into one of the adjacent spaces designed for the purpose. But these behaviours are not necessarily instinctive. They come into effect thanks to gradually developing something that actually works, tweaking the design and the office protocols until not just a compromise is reached but a refinement of details which is more than the design team might have reached on their own.

Back however to the issues of physical design. In our wish to create the ultimately efficient, flexible, creative office we may have let the pendulum swing too far the other way. There is nothing morally wrong therefore with creating enclosed spaces and other fixes. They are expensive and inflexible, and they do need to be located judiciously, so as to structure flexibility, not prevent it, and they are likely to be more expensive than trendy bits of furniture, but better to work with these limitations than to kid ourselves that they can do more than they can.

Better a community that has adjusted itself to an environment and an environment that has honed itself to its user requirements than a stand-off between the two. One is reminded of the barnacle that has fixed itself to the rock. Both barnacle and rock have had to give way a little. Users are far more sophisticated in their occupation of buildings these days. If in turn there is an adjustment required in the concept of open plan or ‘agile working’, let’s see if we can get there by means of a process of careful engagement, rather than a showdown which is likely to undo what has been earned these past 25 years.