“What was that, sorry? I can’t hear you…”
It’s a sentence we hear all too often today – and with an alarming frequency in our workspaces. Workstation densities are higher than ever, our connectivity has reached staggering levels of technological dependence, collaboration is de riguer and we’re all working harder, faster and longer than ever before.
As a result, we’re also working louder too. Currently across the full spectrum of A+D disciplines, we’re beginning to question what this din might mean for our clients’ dreams for increased productivity, and our stakeholders’ concern for their individual health and wellbeing. Are we working in such a way, that is, which is proving to be counterproductive?
Recently, international research conducted by Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear of the University of Sydney on the behavioural psychology of workspace design found that a staggering majority of workers are dissatisfied with their working environment. In what is quite a startling indictment from those surveyed, the research indicates that in addition to waning motivation, general wellbeing, productivity and collective morale, more than 60% of workers claim to lose close to an hour out of an 8 hour work day due to “noise distractions […that are] doubled in open-plan offices”. Aggregately, that equates to billions and billions of dollars worth of lost revenue for corporations worldwide, every day. With workspace noise pollution taking out the top billing in detrimental indices affecting worker productivity and health, the A+D community is now becoming increasingly devoted to investigating ways in which spatial attuning can work alongside acoustic engineering.
This human-centric turn in design ideology is core to the Belgian company BuzziSpace. Understanding the performative, behavioural and aesthetic nuances surrounding noise in the workplace, BuzziSpace became an international success story seemingly overnight back in 2007. Teaming up with Zenith Interiors, BuzziSpace and Zenith recently took their seminar series Demystifying Acoustics out on the road to unite the conversation of sustainable design and production with the conversations surrounding wellness, optimum performance and user-oriented workplace design surrounding noise management. tackle noise-management systems, the philosophy behind cocoons and sound-absorbing materiality.
Just before leaving Perth for Cologne’s 2016 Orgatec, Daniel Verlooven – BuzziSpace’s Global Acoustics Ambassador – was kind enough to sit down with Contemporary’s Editor, David Congram, to discuss what designing with sound in mind really entails.
David Congram (Contemporary) | It’s certainly undeniable that acoustics is increasingly at the forefront of our minds – and especially so in the commercial sector. But in our attempt to bring a discussion of wellness into the design process, is attention to acoustics still an afterthought?
Daniel Verlooven (BuzziSpace) | You’re right that the biggest problem we face is that most designers, facility mangers and decision makers don’t seem to prioritise acoustics in their initial blueprint and don’t mind eliminating it when the budget needs to be cut down. Secondly, acoustics are still considered a form of decoration, neglecting the wellbeing factor and the benefits for all workers and thus ending up used and applied for the wrong purposes and not from a problem-solving approach.
David Congram | Is this, then, a problem of education and information diffusion within the industry itself?
Daniel Verlooven | Well, it’s largely due to a lack of proficiency and knowledge when trying to make an estimate on the amount of absorptive material needed. It’s still considered as an obstructive and disruptive element when designing a room and seen as a permanent, non-flexible element. Therefore, our mission at BuzziSpace is to design and manufacture easy, adaptable and movable pieces which can be fully integrated into a flexible office environment. With the right colours and shapes, acoustics can be a perfect matchmaker with the existing office furniture lay out and could contribute to the wellbeing of all workers still remaining in harmony with the designer’s vision.
David Congram | Which is, I imagine, part of the mission statement for Demystifying Acoustics. Was there a clear goal you and Team Zenith isolated that informed the way you approached the seminar series?
Daniel Verlooven | It was very important for us that we would try to simplify all matters concerning acoustics, without denying the complexity and scientific approach. It’s not easy, but it’s important that acoustics in A+D are also made accessible for a general audience. The main set-up was to present acoustics from a broader historical and evolutionary perspective in order to give our audience a clear insight on one of the most important senses. Additionally, the necessity and importance of acoustics for the wellbeing and health for everybody working as an individual or as part of a team, was always at the front of our minds.
We don’t have the ambition or ability to turn anybody into an acoustics nerd or engineer. So instead, we aimed to foster in them the build up some self-confidence next time they are confronted with any given acoustical issue. The Zenith Interiors team will soon be able to take on accurate acoustic measurements with our RT60 app, which enables you to measure the reverberation in any give problematic room and actually simulate the impact of the room adjustments with our products.
Bad acoustics equals bad meetings, poor communication and disruptive working conditions. Therefore it’s important to balance the room perfectly by increasing the speech intelligibility and clarity of sound with the right amount of products and the right degree of absorption.
David Congram | Is there currently more interest and investment in acoustic attuning in the workplace? And to what extent do you feel that there might still be quite a way to go in improving/perfecting our design responses to acoustics?
Daniel Verlooven | I learned from this tour that designers and facility managers are at least open to debate upon the importance of acoustics. I really hope that this series of seminars could serve as an eyeopener and enhance some prior thinking and budgeting when a new project arises. Since Australia and New Zealand are among the frontrunners when it comes to the new wellbeing and health movement, designers should see it as their duty to fully embrace acoustics as an essential part of our professional practice.
We see a growing number of absenteeism, people suffering from muscle tension, headache, and blood pressure issues all related to bad acoustics, so therefore it’s in the general interest of each decision maker to take this matter seriously.
As the design community tries to create convivial and communal office spaces, there will be a growing need and demand for adapting the design of acoustic products into more flexible, movable and customised elements to be fully integrated with the overall lay out. An acoustic item should never be dominating in a space, it’s just there to serve the purpose and to blend in with the rest of the furniture. It’s quite simple, really.
Photography courtesy of Zenith Interiors.
Words by David Congram.