Combining ‘Open Concept’ Architecture and Acoustic Design

Open-concept architecture seeks to create airy, soaring spaces. Fewer walls and barriers can eliminate a claustrophobic, stuffy, or isolated feeling. Open designs make a space feel bigger and lighter, and who wouldn’t want that? It sounds great.

Except it doesn’t sound great. Such spaces are frequently designed without any input from acoustical consultants, often with troubling results. Let’s examine the main design factors that go into open-concept architecture.

Room Volume

As any acoustic consultant in Toronto can tell you, the amount of reverberation within a space is the factor that most defines a room’s acoustical character. Reverberation is the buildup of sound energy due to the bouncing around of sound waves as they strike various hard surfaces. If a sound wave strikes a hard, reflective surface, it is largely reflected back out into the room as reverberation. If it strikes a soft, absorbent surface, it is mostly absorbed.

The other factor affecting a room’s reverberation is the volume of the space. A small room can be made with hard, sound reflecting surfaces (such as a tile floor and painted gypsum board walls) and the resulting reverberation doesn’t present a problem. But open concept architecture eliminates small, compartmentalized spaces, creating larger rooms with increased ceiling heights resulting in increased volume within a single room. The bigger the volume of a space, the longer the reverberation time.

Highly reverberant rooms can produce a cavernous acoustical quality. Sounds linger on, giving a feeling of openness often matching the room’s open appearance. Sonically “dead” rooms produce an acoustical quality that can be described as “intimate” or “cozy.” There’s a tradeoff. Overly reverberant rooms can sound overwhelming and fatiguing while overly dead rooms can sound dry.

It Is What It Is

An acoustic design company can explain all of this to a client and even provide aural simulations of the finished space. Without actually living or working in the space, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine how this will feel in practice. Thus, these simulations provide the needed contrast to be able to make an informed design decision. Instead, soaring, open-space designs are constructed without acoustical design input and the occupants of the room are left to deal with the difficult acoustics as best they can. They like the aesthetic qualities of the open architecture, but are very uncomfortable in the challenging acoustical environment. Often, they don’t even realize that it can be improved with specific recommendations from an acoustic design company.

It Isn’t What It Is

You are not stuck with a beautiful but unusable work space. The solution is balance. Your acoustic consultants can introduce enough absorptive surfaces into an architectural design to maintain the desired look and feel without breaking up the open-concept design, preserving the aesthetics. Reverberation control is the acoustical key to open-concept architecture that enhances the work environment.