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Working silently with noise

KEEP OFF NOISE: Acoustical planning is essential to make an office conducive to optimal work performance.

KEEP OFF NOISE: Acoustical planning is essential to make an office conducive to optimal work performance.  

Reducing noise levels is inexpensive and fairly simple in an office atmosphere. But you should adopt a comprehensive approach to acoustic design starting from the sidewalk and going up to the CEO's office, says SANDEEP MITTAL

Imagine a scenario where your conference call or presentation, on which the future of your company depends, is ruined by the annoying hum of the air-conditioning or the persistent hoot of vehicles stuck in traffic! As if this were not enough, ringing phones, whirring printers, beeping faxes, rebooting computers, clanking copiers, slamming doors, sliding drawers, clicking keyboards, dragging feet, rattling trolleys make it worse. Recent studies show that noise is one of the main reasons for the low productivity and distractions of employees in BPO/ITES offices. How many times in the day do we silently curse unwanted noise, wrecking our concentration? And, yet, we can do nothing about it - or can we?

Often, architects, facility managers et al are the movers and shakers that decide how an office should be. The role of the acoustician at the design stage is often undermined. It is a mistaken fact that acoustical consultations are meant only for cinema halls, auditoriums or studios. In fact, if simple acoustical techniques are adopted at the design stage itself, a lot of difficulties can be averted post-occupancy. After all, there is nothing more pleasing than a good-looking BPO/ITES office with the right acoustical planning. A general office may not prioritise acoustics but BPOs and call-centres must list it very high on their `To-Do' list.

Acoustical planning is an essential consideration in meeting what is arguably the primary goal of an office: to provide an overall ambience conducive to optimal work performance.

Here are some easy tips, following which, one could greatly enrich the acoustical experience and improve work skills at their BPO/ITES office.

The reception and atrium will need less of polished and parallel surfaces that architects are wont to design and space users wont to demand. Glazing is hard and reflective for sound but cannot be avoided. It may be innovatively angled to render surfaces non-parallel to diffuse the sound. Textured paint and glass cloth finishes on hard walls can help. For tougher cases, modular acoustical panels may be strategically placed.

The simplest solution for the lower floors to get rid of traffic noise is to build a noise-isolant boundary wall. It goes without saying that the interiors have to be air-conditioned so that noise-rated doors and windows can remain closed to shut out any external noise.

Partitions between cellular offices that seek acoustical privacy must not terminate at the false ceiling level, but go right up to the true roof with noise-isolant panels. Laterally too the walls must terminate at the glazing mullions, not stopped short of the glazing unless spandrel members are used, and the joints sealed with noise-rated silica gel. The same holds true for partitions between noisy spaces like machine rooms and the open office areas.

Workstation barriers can make or break a BPO office, especially voice-based call-centres. Architects want to keep the barriers low-height to get the open-plan feeling of spaciousness. Space users may want it too to aid visual checks by the supervisors. But the truth is, the best of acoustic barriers is useless if sound can travel over it. Purpose-built acoustical panels with a height of 600mm over the worktop are a minimum requirement. This means an overall height of 1350mm from the floor, not 1200mm that architects prefer.

Ceilings must be sound absorbing. Seamless smooth ceilings made with common building boards that render the surface hard and reflective must be avoided.

The flooring needs carpeting to hush the footfalls and scraping noise of chairs and shoes. Carpeting also improves the overall acoustics ambience. The next best thing would be vinyl flooring. Vinyl is softer than stone or other hard flooring materials.

The air-conditioning design should cut the noise at source, that is, at the AHU room itself. Also, ducts should be lined and noise attenuators placed strategically at room boundaries.

Not only should the rooftop chiller units be mounted on resilient mounts but the pipelines should be acoustically encased in the building structure.treated for noise.

It is best to adopt a soundscaping approach to a BPO/ITES office campus. Soundscaping is a holistic, comprehensive approach to noise management and architectural acoustics that starts from the sidewalk and ends at the chief executive's cabin including everything else in between. Appointing an acoustician or using acoustical materials for only the conference room or the auditorium is a piece-meal, adhoc approach that may not result in acoustical optimisation of the facility.

(The author is Technical Director at Anutone Acoustics Ltd., an acoustics technology company. He can be reached at sm@anutone.com)

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