Tales from the Field: Sounding Off on Acoustics

By now, if you are a weekly reader of this column, you’ll have read two “Tales from the Field,” intimate stories on lessons I’ve learned while on the job; one discussed a deal-making strategy and the other was a cautionary tale about how to avoid unnecessary costs and stress by thinking through future needs beforehand. Now I will share the third story in this five-part series, which will examine an of-the-moment issue: getting acoustics just right for maturing start-ups.

Like many other architects and acoustical consultants, I do plenty of work for newly launching or rapidly growing social media, tech and creative tenants. When it comes to office design, many of these tenants favor an open, industrial-like aesthetic since it conveys that cache of something young, fresh and cutting edge. That often involves open floor plans, the use of metal and glass, exposed ceilings and ductwork and concrete floors. While they are visually intriguing, these designs are not always the smartest when it comes to keeping noise levels in check. It becomes a classic case of too much of a good thing.

Take one social media tenant we worked with recently. As the burgeoning company became increasingly successful, they did what most firms do: they added staff. Before the company knew it, it had reached the floor’s maximum legal density. Suddenly, the space became a little too loud. The acoustics needed to be balanced to maintain the raw look while still allowing employees to get work done comfortably. That’s when the firm turned to us for help, a scenario that happens more than people realize. We were able to assist the tenant by incorporating sound-absorbing materials to balance the acoustics and lessen reverberations. Some simple ways to troubleshoot after a build-out include installing fabric wall panels or incorporating cushioned furniture into the space, both measures that help creative and tech-centric firms stay away from the corporate look they were trying to avoid to begin with.

Whether for an expansion or a move, one can still achieve the desired density without sacrificing design or workplace efficiency. All it takes is a little creativity so the sound-absorbing materials blend in with the architecture. Data from numerous studies supports the notion that acoustics affects productivity in the office–a concern that should be top-of-mind for any firm.

The lesson: blend acoustics into the design early on, anticipating what the space will be, and sound like, as a company matures and grows. At one time, acoustics were considered a luxury for start-ups, but now firms are starting to realize it’s a small financial investment that often reaps big rewards over time.


Scott E. Spector, AIA, is a principal at Spector Group, one of New York’s premier architecture and interior design firms and a leader in corporate tenant and building owner-based design. The award-winning company has affiliate offices nationally and internationally. To date, it has completed more than 1,500 projects.

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