Open-design challenge: Keeping noise to dull roar |

Open-design challenge: Keeping noise to dull roar

John Seelmeyer

When crews from KAHL Commercial Interiors Inc. install furnishings ordered by a designer these days, it’s not uncommon for office workers to voice worries about distractions when they see that their old Dilbert-style cubicles are being replaced with lower dividers and an open-plan office.

“People think that there is going to be more noise,” says Dan Kahl, co-owner of the company.

The need for noise management, even in small offices, shouldn’t be underestimated, says Kim Ciesynski, owner of Spaces Design & Planning in Sparks and a member of the State Board of Architecture, Interior Design and Residential Design.

“When someone is complaining about a job, it’s often because that acoustical comfort is not there,” Ciesynski says.

Reduction of distracting noise in an office with an open design requires a combination of careful planning, workplace rules, and appropriate products

The planning, Ciesynski says, begins with analysis of the functions that occur within an office.

Some functions — sales and marketing, for instance — will flourish in a collaborative environment. Tasks such as accounting that require heads-down, attention to detail need quiet.

“That’s where you think about zoning in an office,” Ciesynski says. “And that’s why design is so important. You have to think about these things.”

Buffer zones between collaborative areas and quiet areas are important, she says.

Even seemingly small matters of desk arrangements can make a big difference. If desks are next to each other, for instance, their occupants shouldn’t be facing one another while they’re on their phones.

“Conversation is the biggest noise factor in most offices,” Ciesynski says.

And good design provides space for workers who occasionally need to make calls that require privacy.

Workplace rules, while seemingly outside the purview of an office designer, are critically important, Ciesynski says.

A simple, but often overlooked rule: No loud phone calls. And Kahl says managers moving to an open-design office may need have a frank talk with the person — there seems to be one in every office — who talks too loudly.

Kimberly Hopkins, a registered interior designer with RBI Design in Reno, says choices of materials also can help reduce noise problems.

Acoustic wall panels — many of them now disguised as artwork — can soak up sound. Other panels can be installed in ceilings.

Either way, Hopkins says, the panels soak up the echoes that add substantially to the sense that a room is noisy.

Among the most annoying noises in an open office, researchers have found, is the “halfalogues” that result when office workers hear only part of a telephone conversation.

Hopkins says sound-masking systems — “pink-noise,” some call it — are becoming more popular as a way of reducing conversation-related noise in an office.

The systems include technology that emits a low-level sound — the sound itself isn’t distracting — that’s calibrated to make others’ conversation less intelligible. The systems also help mask the sounds of office machinery or traffic.

The cost: A rough rule of thumb is anywhere from $1 to $2.50 a square foot.

But those systems are less useful in masking the conversation of the person in the next cubicle. That’s especially true, Hopkins says, as office designers lower cubicle walls in an effort to meet another desire of office workers — allowing more daylight to reach cubicles close to the center of the office.