What is the significance of room acoustics in modern offices? What is the role of Open-Space? And what office solutions are conceivable in the future due to the Covid-19 pandemic? Christina Heeckt, owner of the architectural office hmarchitekten from Hamburg, gave us answers to the essential questions.
Ms Heeckt, what is the significance of room acoustics in office building projects?
Office design with open space areas with integrated zones for concentrated work are currently state of the art. We must do this justice by planning and implementing with appropriate construction and spatial structure. The development from individual to open plan offices has noticeably increased the importance of room acoustics.
How do you assess the importance of acoustic quality in office spaces in terms of the well-being and performance of employees?
Room acoustics is very important, it has a direct influence on the working atmosphere and performance of employees. If an employee feels disturbed due to noise pollution, this not only has a negative impact on the well-being of the individual, it can also extend to the entire working atmosphere of an office community.
What do investors and project developers think about room acoustics - is there still a lot of convincing to be done?
We hardly ever need to convince anyone of the usefulness of such measures. In recent years, the topic has become increasingly important and is a significant factor for successful letting. Elements for improving room acoustics have thus increasingly become part of the "basic equipment" of new office complexes.
How can this be imagined in concrete terms?
In the past, office walls were full of shelves and files, and there were many more absorber surfaces in total. Today it is the other way round and sound-reflecting surfaces dominate. So we have to create creative, flexible solutions as fixtures so that working in open space is pleasant. At the same time, we need acoustically separated “retreat areas” for telephone calls, meetings and other communication. No office can be rented out today without acoustic control.
What does this mean for design and implementation planning?
There are of course different ways of implementation. We are particularly fond of exposed concrete ceilings, in our new buildings we often work with thermal component activation and use thermo-activated raw soffits. Ceiling rafts as acoustic elements fit in very well with this concept, because they require only minimal fixings and allow a view of the exposed concrete surfaces. Therefore, together with the investor or owner, we have to make decisions at an early stage about those areas that are to be equipped with suspended ceilings or with ceiling rafts for room acoustic reasons.
What are your preferred means of optimizing room acoustics at hmarchitekten?
Priority is given to special absorber surfaces on ceilings or walls before using carpets and special furniture. As already mentioned, ceiling rafts have proven themselves, but also wall absorbers and sometimes additional free-standing room dividers. These elements are part of the basic design of objects for which hmarchitekten is responsible.
On what basis do you determine the need for room acoustic measures?
An external acoustics consultancy is involved in the planning process at an early stage, using detailed calculations to determine the acoustic requirements in different areas and providing important basic data for the choice of materials and construction method.
Do the ideas of interior design and the demands on room acoustics sometimes get in the way?
During the planning stage, we make sure that the overall appearance and design of the individual offices, corridors and common areas are not at the expense of the room acoustics, but the same applies vice versa. We always try to achieve a balanced mixture here.
How do you achieve this?
We design our concept in such a way that a harmonious interior design with recurring elements is created for the entire building, without the tenants noticing a uniform look. We turn acoustic elements into design elements. The users of the premises have a certain amount of leeway in the design, which is gladly exploited. Much can also be clarified in the run-up to the interior design when the respective tenants can express their ideas.
Can you give an example from your planning practice?
A good example is Phoenixkontor 1 - PK 1 for short - a four-storey office and commercial building in Hamburg's Schützenstraße. Leasing the property to a Swedish company entailed special requirements for the interior design. When it comes to office architecture, the Swedes have a different understanding of space than we do in Germany. The majority of the space was designed as open space, i.e. offices with an area of 120 m² or more. The floor plan also includes communication islands and, parallel to each open-plan office, several soundproof glass cubicles with telephones and WLAN for the activities of individual employees.
Where do you think the journey in office acoustics will take you in the next few years?
Since clients want to have even fewer permanently assigned workplaces in the future, open space solutions in conjunction with islands of retreat for concentrated work and discussions will increase. The topic of absorption surfaces will thus remain with us. Flexible planning and the possibility of variable use of the offices are important for the tenant when deciding on a new or modernised property. The room-acoustic elements or facilities must also be adapted to this.
With a view to the Covid 19 pandemic: Would it be conceivable for you that in the long term new office concepts will replace the open space trend?
Since today's office concepts are characterized by a high degree of flexibility in their structure, I believe that there is no clear trend either now or in the future. The concept of using different spatial structures to create different work areas and working conditions is a very good approach. Modern offices have to respond to the different needs of working and they have to be very variable. Where concentrated work with high discretion is required, the individual office will continue to be the solution in the future. For other forms of work it will be open space. Here in particular, there will be further solutions in the future, such as transparent and flexible shielding at the desk in order to create the necessary distance between employees without significantly affecting personal exchange and thus communication.
Photo: © Christiane Koch