As our cities densify and building types become more and more mixed-use, we tend to spend a lot of time in noisy environments. When we think about acoustic comfort, we rarely think of places like restaurants, venues, and big offices; places with a lot of people, machinery, and background noise. The quality of sound can entirely change the experience of people in an interior space, and improving the space's acoustic quality relies on treating all surfaces, from walls to ceilings, and flooring. In this article, we will present a variety of solutions for ceilings, flooring, and walls, their different combinations, and a simple guide of how to apply them correctly in public spaces without compromising the aesthetic of the interior.
Acoustics is a very complex field, and ensuring an acoustically-comfortable environment depends on its function, how many people are occupying the space, and what it requires in terms of spatial configuration. When it comes to public spaces, designing a perfect acoustic enclosure is very challenging, since the space is overwhelmed with a compilation of chatter, background music, street noise, and machinery sounds, to name a few, making it very difficult to filter out and select what we want to hear. Consequently, poorly designed public spaces impact the productivity and wellbeing of individuals spending time in that space. Oftentimes, creating acoustically comfortable environments is relegated to cinemas, concert halls, and recording studios, spaces that require “noise-reduced” environments, but other public facilities such as schools, hospitals, and sports venues, require just as much consideration when it comes to acoustic comfort, taking into account the walls, ceiling, and flooring while designing the space.
Indoor acoustic quality depends on how much sound is being transmitted into the space and how it is being controlled. What our ears perceive varies with respect to the levels of reverberation and absorption of the space we are surrounded by, and these two factors can be evaluated through the measuring of sound levels and room acoustics. Sound level is measured by background noise levels versus peak noise levels, whereas room acoustics are measured by reverberation time, intelligibility level, and privacy level. The most commonly used measuring unit of sound is the decibel (dB) which determines the variations in pressure. Vibration cycles per second determine the pitch, or frequency, measured in Hertz (Hz).
It is crucial to understand that there are two technical categories used in acoustics: soundproofing and acoustical treatment; soundproofing means "less noise" and treatment means "better sound". Both categories can be applied to walls, ceilings, and flooring, depending on what the interior space requires. If the idea is to reduce the noise entering or leaving a room, the structural mass of the walls, the floor, and the ceiling must be increased, and the air spaces from windows and doors must be sealed. But if the purpose is to make the environment more pleasant with less reverberation, what we seek is to absorb the sound.
Spaces with open plans, such as offices and sports venues, require special attention to acoustics on every surface possible. Since walls are minimal in such spaces, the acoustic solution is ideally implemented on ceilings and floors. Although ceilings are often overlooked in architectural projects, they have important features that can be incorporated into the design, such as thermal and acoustic properties. Ceilings combine both functionality and aesthetics through the layering of different materials, textures, and color, ensuring quality and comfort in interior spaces. When it comes to acoustics, incorporating materials that can absorb sound, such as fibrous panels, can make the interior space more comfortable, since the sound striking the material is not being reflected back. Aesthetically, architects have explored the design potential of ceilings by employing panels that accentuate the interior’s structure, as seen in the Captaincy Office by Canoa Arquitetura, Restaurant Whey by Snøhetta, and Cave Restaurant by Koichi Takada Architects, or by allowing these panels to stand out on their own as decorative elements.
In projects with an open floor plan and exposed ceiling, acoustic solutions are best implemented on floors. Even in spaces like schools or indoor playgrounds where kids are running around and jumping, proper acoustic solutions on floors create a calmer atmosphere and reduce disturbances on floors below. When it comes to flooring solutions, the goal is to soundproof the space and not treat it acoustically. Usually, soundproofing materials are installed beneath the surface to reduce the amount of noise being emitted, such as wool material beneath wood panels. In some projects, it is possible to install sound-absorbing material, similar to carpets, as a decorative final flooring surface.
Perhaps the most commonly-used acoustic solution is wall paneling, and since walls take up a big portion of the space, it is often requested that an acoustic correction solution combines noise cancellation and impact resistance with an appealing design. By installing absorbers and diffusers on walls, the level of undesirable noise, such as echo and reverberation, is greatly reduced, making it more comfortable to occupy the space for a longer time. In restaurants, for instance, excessive noise interference is bound to happen due to multiple people talking amongst each other. When the space is noisy, people are forced to speak even louder so they can hear each other, adding more discomfort to the space. Covering the walls with the proper acoustic panels and using sound-absorbing material such as wood and textiles, helps reduce the noise being circulated within the space.
The ideal approach for spaces with a lot of noise is to combine all three acoustic solutions together, which has motivated companies to find innovative ways to design and manufacture all-inclusive acoustic products and systems that contribute to a good working environment. In Brückner & Brückner Architekten's Synergy, From a Monastery to a Music Conservatory project, the rehearsal rooms are furnished entirely with state-of-the-art acoustics to ensure optimum sound quality. However, interiors with spatial constraints, such as water fixtures, open plans, and exposed ventilation, more detailed research is recommended to find the most effective solution. Thankfully, soundproofing and acoustic treatment solutions have become affordable, modular, and decorative, making it possible for the architect to be as creative as can be, while ensuring a comfortable environment.