Modern Acoustic Solutions for Interior Environments

Specifying for health, comfort, aesthetics, and affordability
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Sponsored by AMBICO, ASI Architectural, Focal Point, NanaWall, PABCO Gypsum, Pyrok, Rockfon®, and USG
By Rebecca A. Pinkus, MTPW, MA
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Common Indoor Environments that Need Sound and Noise Control

Where exposure to excessively loud and prolonged noise typically impacts workers in the manufacturing sector or in other industrial settings, uncontrolled noise can happen in just about any indoor environment. Classrooms, lecture halls, offices, retail spaces, restaurants, hotels, hospitals—any indoor space where people live, work, or play—all rely on having noise controlled in some way or another. Noise can reduce employee concentration, which in turn impacts their productivity. Noise can also make it difficult for kids to learn in their classrooms. And, in a more extreme case, noise can reduce healing times for patients in hospitals.

Photo courtesy of AMBICO

Soundproof doors with specialty steel frames control noise while adding rated fire protection.

Even if the noise isn’t actually loud, it can be a big problem. In schools, for example, uncontrolled noise can directly impact how well young children learn not just content but also language and literacy skills. If they can’t hear the teacher, they will be less likely to pay attention, and therefore less likely to learn. The issue is so important that in 2002, a new standard for classroom acoustics, ANSI/ASA S12.60-2002, was set to help planners and designers create more acoustically sound spaces for children. Adults also have trouble when working in environments where the sound is not well controlled. Office noise, whether intermittent or even quite, can be enough to distract employees and lower their productivity. In extreme cases, when the noise is continual, it can make it hard to concentrate and add stress to the workplace, which in turn can make some employees irritable and can even increase blood pressure.

Retail and commercial spaces also require properly managed noise. Restaurants in particular have multiple sound and noise sources that can become problematic if not controlled. Kitchen noise, plates clanking, patrons talking, music, and in some cases TV can all add up to a situation where patrons can’t hear the person sitting next to them and wait staff can’t clearly hear patrons. Both customers and employees can suffer in this sense, and that can impact business in many ways. The same holds true for other commercial spaces. Poorly managed noise and sound between hotel rooms, for example, can ruin a guest’s experience; however, a perfectly quiet room that blocks out street noise and sounds from the rest of the building will be highly valued.

Large event spaces such as sports arenas have special challenges in controlling noise. While the larger venues have their own goals—often where the crowd noise is part of the experience—private VIP rooms or “boxes” where the event can be watched in comfort and relative quiet away from the crowds is another matter. Architectural projects that have to balance different noise requirements depend on unique acoustic solutions that allow for visibility along with noise control.

Performance spaces, whether concert halls or theaters, all require precise acoustic design. In these spaces, especially concert halls, sound is what people are there to experience, whether in the form of music or spoken voice. An acoustically flawless space will be noticed and celebrated—but a space where outside noises or echo from inside sounds disrupt the performance can ruin the experience.

Finally, spaces such as hospitals and clinics also rely on noise being well controlled, not only for patient privacy but also patient health and well-being, such as in overnight hospital rooms. Health-care facilities present a unique challenge in that they are typically designed with easy-to-clean flooring and wall materials, such as ceramic tiles and stainless steel. When these materials are combined with the sounds of medical equipment, footsteps, voices, and intercom alerts, noise can become quite loud, interrupting patients throughout their stay. In this case, unwanted sounds and noise can impact healing times and a patient’s ability to rest and recover.

Modern acoustic design solutions range from simple, easy-to-install panels that can help designers meet their goals on time and within budget to elegant, complex solutions to address the most challenging acoustic problems in the industry, such as high-end performance spaces, private areas within larger event venues, and everything in between. The key to success in this aspect of a building project is to understand the intended use of the space and how sound- and noise-management systems can make the indoor environment as comfortable as possible.

The Science of Sound and Sound Management

Sound generation, including how it is measured and the different ways that acoustic design solutions can reduce, absorb, and mitigate the potential damage and distraction of uncontrolled and unwanted sound, are all important to understand before getting into a sound-management project. There are six key aspects relevant to sound-management specification that can help create a foundation for selecting high-performance acoustic solutions. They are: acoustic performance, fire safety, sustainability, occupant health and well-being, design flexibility and customization, and accessibility after installation. These aspects contribute to different certification programs and standards, whether for sustainability, health, safety and well-being, or fire ratings—all of which are relevant for interior acoustic products.

The science of sound and sound management is at the heart of designing indoor spaces that enhance rather than detract from the indoor experience in terms of managed sounds and noises. When we talk about the science of sound, we’re referring to acoustics, which is the scientific study of sound in all of its forms. In architectural design, acoustics is concerned with how sound functions both within and between architectural spaces; for example, how sound functions within one room as well as between rooms, whether through walls, ceilings, or floors. But architectural spaces are rarely empty; they are usually filled with furniture, fixtures, and other objects, all of which interact with sound. As such, acoustics also needs to take into account how sound is reflected, absorbed, or scattered in a space.

Sound waves will behave differently depending on the surfaces in the space. For example, highly reflective surfaces such as bare walls and uncarpeted floors will redirect the direction of the sound, and so the sound can take longer to get from its origin to the listener. An echo is an example of such a delay. On the other extreme, a space that has highly sound-absorptive surfaces will decrease the reflected sound waves and thus reduce potential reverberations and echoes. Finding a balance between reflective and absorptive surfaces can be a challenge, especially in some spaces. That balance needs to stem from the intended use of the room and consider whether privacy is needed, sound needs to carry, or the space needs to be genuinely quiet. We’ll talk more about some of the design options and different acoustic solutions that can be used to address these issues in the next section. But first, let’s go over some important terms.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in July 2019


Modern Acoustic Solutions for Interior Environments
Buyer's Guide
Acoustic Products
AMBICO products take center stage at the Isabel Bader Center for the Performing Arts. This $63-million project required the architects to rely on AMBICO’s acoustic assemblies to block the sound from room to room. AMBICO designed and supplied nearly 100 wood and steel acoustic assemblies ranging from STC 40–59.
AMBICO Limited
Envirocoustic Wood Wool Corner Detail
Wood Wool is now a leader in the eco-friendly, high-performance, cost-effective acoustical-panel products category. Envirocoustic performs well by absorbing sound while thermally insulating; ecologically, acoustic wool is simple to produce; and panels are available in many size and color variations that can be designed to fit nearly any decor.
Seem® 1 Acoustic
Seem® 1 Acoustic, a linear luminaire and baffle system with an eco-friendly housing, delivers a noise reduction coefficient (NRC) of 1.05. The flexible system can be specified as an illuminated or unlit acoustic baffle to achieve the desired illumination and acoustic reverberation levels with a coordinated look.
STC 36 Sound-Rated Frameless Opening Glass Wall
NanaWall PrivaSEE is the only all-glass single-track sliding system specifically engineered for enhanced acoustical separation.
NanaWall Systems
QuietRock® Sound-Reducing Drywall
QuietRock® is the first gypsum product engineered to address airborne noise control in buildings. Professionals consistently choose QuietRock for its high acoustic performance, low installed cost, easy installation, thorough testing and reliability, and space-saving results. The standard in sound-reducing drywall, QuietRock has been installed in thousands of successful projects across the United States and Canada.
PABCO Gypsum
StarSilent System
The Pyrok StarSilent System is a smooth, seamless, durable, sound-absorbing plaster finish for walls and ceilings. This environmentally friendly system allows designers to utilize a seamless gypsum board look with high sound-absorbing qualities. For more information, call 914-777-7070 or email
Pyrok, Inc.
Sonar® + Plenum Barrier Board
Combine Rockfon’s Sonar® stone wool ceiling panels, suspension grid, and Plenum Barrier Board for a complete overhead system that optimizes both the acoustic absorption (high NRC 0.95) and privacy (STC 45–50) when interior partitions extend only up to the suspended ceiling.
Ensemble® Acoustical Drywall Ceiling
Design with excellent acoustic performance without compromising the smooth, seamless beauty of drywall. Breakthrough innovations across USG product technologies come together into one system to maximize sound control. With this unique system, designers can unlock new possibilities for what a ceiling can do, especially in high-end applications.