Acoustic Furniture Won’t Save You from Open Offices

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by Kate Wagner (@mcmansionhell)

Open offices are absurd. Putting people in a giant, loud space where there’s no privacy whatsoever, making them irritated and distracted, and then telling them to “collaborate” speaks to the fact that managers still don’t take into account how workers do 21st century work in designing a functional workplace.

In an article by Fast Company documenting the top 10 reasons people hate open offices, sound is explicitly mentioned in every answer except for #6. Noisy open-plan offices do double damage: in order to drown out sonic distractions, employees also spend all day wearing headphones and avoiding phone calls or meetings. So much for collaboration.

How do companies and designers attempt to solve this problem? Not by doing the logical thing and bringing back walls and doors, but by flooding the market with absurd products like the “printer shield” and the “acoustical lamp,” designed to solve an unsolvable problem — that open offices suck.

 We could use the acoustic printer-shamer, or we could replace tons of noisy individual printers with something called “office-wide printing.” via  Architonic

We could use the acoustic printer-shamer, or we could replace tons of noisy individual printers with something called “office-wide printing.” via Architonic

To be fair, not all of these products are stupid. Many improve greatly on the aesthetic problems inherent to applied acoustical treatment (remember those drab, white drop ceilings with the embedded fluorescent lights?) But many of them are facile, or even lack any evidence to back up their acoustical claims.

These products fall into two common categories: 1) furnishings that just tack the word “acoustic” on as a selling point, like Starbucks tacks on the word artisanal; and 2) products that reinvent the wheel and claim that they’re innovating simply because their use is directed at open offices: “Acoustic (nouns) for your open office.”

Contrary to popular belief, acoustics is a lot more than wall panels and drop ceilings. Yet the idea of applied acoustic products prevails for one simple reason: People can see things like fiberglass panels and say, “That’s doing acoustics.” We can’t see sound, which makes explaining how it might be dampened that much more difficult. Acoustic products fix the problem perceived by one of the senses (hearing) with solutions driven by another (sight): a testimony to both our love for quick fixes and a culture dominated by the visual. How many interior designers actually listen to their acoustic panels?

So instead, we have become reliant on objects that look like they solve problems rather than scientifically tested acoustical solutions, which are often structural (replacing floors or redoing wall insulation) rather than applied. This reliance is often exploited by designers who borrow the visual signifiers of products designed for sound and use them to sell products whose acoustical effectiveness is negligible at best.

Thus, we end up with things like “Acoustic" Lights:

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Apparently, the application of felt can make any product an acoustic product! The point of this exercise is not to name and shame a few companies. It’s to urge those companies to act in good faith when claiming that their products have acoustic benefits. While it’s empirically observable that felt quiets sound, acousticians need more than that to be able to justify using the material.

(Good) acousticians choose their applied products through a combination of aesthetics and data, based on acoustical measurements done by manufacturers. These measurements provide information about how effective a material is at isolating sound, reducing noise, and absorbing or scattering sound at different frequencies. They then integrate that data with other tools they use to examine and model how sound travels in the room being for which they’re being designed.

Without product data, acousticians are left guesstimating, a practice that is generally frowned upon in engineering. Most legitimate acoustics product manufacturers make this data easily accessible on their websites or in product datasheets. Sometimes the manufacturer will specify that acoustic measurement data is available upon request. These are all signs of good faith.

The other genre of open office acoustics grifting is “Reinventing the Wheel,” wherein companies “pioneer new solutions” such as:

The Phone Booth:

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The Cubicle (excuse me, “breakout” or “focus workstation” or “hot desk”)

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Sometimes this even extends to certain architectural features, such as: Walls (aka “room dividing partition systems”):

Occasionally there are pieces of acoustical furniture that seem less like solutions than punishments, like the work hood (aka “operational desk system”):

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It’s not that these products aren’t well-designed or good-looking (because many of them are) - it’s that they are superfluous. Or, to take the work hood as a prime example, they’re a band-aid solution for a gaping wound: the open office itself.

* * *

These problems and their supposed solutions are nothing new. "I do not feel that we can look on the use of felt in a building which is being planned as anything but an abomination,” Wallace Sabine, the father of architectural acoustics, wrote in a 1911 letter to the architect Albert Kahn. “It is corrective in character and temporary in quality.”

Sabine, who invented the equation for reverberation time (how long it takes for sound to die out in a room) and its sister concept of absorption coefficients (a measurement of how absorptive a surface is across the frequency spectrum), was perhaps unaware of the huge impact his discoveries would have on the way the world looks and sounds. Reverberance, caused by sound reflecting off of the room’s surfaces, is what gives spaces their “live” quality - when reverberance is particularly excessive, a space becomes “echoey.” Sabine essentially gave the world a way to quantify this acoustical phenomenon, and a way to measure how effective materials were at attenuating it by absorbing this sound.

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These new materials, such as drop ceilings and sound-absorbing insulation, were both symptomatic of and reactions to the modern industrial cityscape. The desire to create rooms insulated from any noise was as powerful and new as the noises themselves and the technology that made them. By the 1920s and ‘30s, noise became a signifier of inefficiency in an age of modernity, whether it was electrical noise in telephone signals, mechanical noise from an ill-maintained machine, or now, excessive loudness in an open-plan interior space.

The use of new architectural acoustical products effectively created an entirely new sonic environment, a quiet, highly absorptive “dead” one where reverberance was seen as an inefficiency – as noise – instead of its traditional role, a sonic signifier of an architectural space.

By applying these types of sound absorbing materials, the acoustical qualities of a room became separated from how one might have expected the room to sound. Imagine going into an empty Gothic cathedral, letting out a shout, and instead of hearing your voice ring out amongst the stone walls, hearing nothing.

One of the first applications of these products was in offices. Companies, consumed by the Taylorism of the 1920s, sought to root out any inefficiencies in their operations, including noise. Offices during this time were closed, with one exception. Typists and secretaries were often installed in long rows of desks in a large open space, suffering the same problems experienced in open offices today: a lack of privacy and an excess of noise.  Eventually this problem heralded the birth of the drop ceiling, and later, the cubicle.

 Armstrong Acoustical Products advertisement from 1932. via  Archive.org .

Armstrong Acoustical Products advertisement from 1932. via Archive.org.

In the 1920s and 30s, a time period obsessed with industrial efficiency, acoustical products were a technological fix - a visible solution to both a sonic problem and a productivity issue. It’s no surprise that our contemporary drive for optimization has led us down a similar path.  

The spaces that inspired the open office of today were early adopters of adaptive reuse, the practice of taking an unused existing space (e.g. a garage, warehouse, or a factory - the bastions of old-school Taylorism) and using it for a new purpose (like a tech startup). These open spaces became tech incubators in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s partially because the rent was cheaper than traditional offices. When these spaces yielded successful tech companies, their use was emulated by aspiring entrepreneurs and later entire companies buying into the idea that shoving a bunch of people together in a huge space forced creative collaboration that led to Google-sized breakthroughs (a philosophy pioneered by MIT’s Building 20).  

In our new technocracy, we follow the same path as in the past - seeking the same quick fixes to a problematic soundscape we created, rather than designing a better one from the very beginning. Instead of playing into the absurdity of the “work hood” or the “acoustic lamp,” we should realize, as most acousticians do, that so many of our sonic problems are actually structural: the ceilings are too tall; the floors and walls are made of or coated with materials that are too reflective; and the fact that people can’t work if they have to shout over or ignore each other just to get through the day.

Beneath the surface of both technocracies lies a belief that is responsible for the failures of workspaces in both eras: that all workers are interchangeable and that they all work in (or prefer to work in) fundamentally the same way. Treating workers like cogs in a machine is how we end up with bitter shouting matches over a loud phone call or calling out Typist No. 324 for doing ten less words per minute than Typist No. 325.

The fortunate news is that, even though some of these new products seem absurd in their presentation, designers are starting to realize that there are many better ways to make workspaces. Following the influence of coworking spaces like WeWork, offices are being constructed so that they’re not all open or all closed, but instead a collection of both: open space for the folks who like open space, pods and cubicles for the folks who like their privacy, and modular solutions for making adaptable spaces that suit both needs at any time. This is good news for the office, though it might be bad news for “open-office solutions” companies.

Both the oppressive expansiveness of the open office and the dark, claustrophobic days of the improvised felt work hood and cell phone booth may finally be behind us. In fact, the new-new offices could look a lot like the 19th century.

 

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Peter Moskowitz