Acoustics Matter: What challenges do we face in creating modern workspaces that embrace occupant wellbeing?

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Planet Partitioning invited a panel of experts along to discuss the above question during CDW. For many years, the design of the modern workplace has been driven to make the most of the commercial value of the real estate, without understanding our most valued asset in the equation – the people we employ. This trend is now changing with a true realisation that all aspects of design, from the building, to the chair or the partition, are there to support people who occupy the space to be the best they can be. 

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The debate was chaired by Martin Townsend, a sustainable business and built environment consultant, and featured a panel of industry experts including:

Genghis Akay, Sales Director, Planet Partitioning

Joe Cilia, Technical Director, FIS

Peter Swallow, Associate, Grimshaw

Ant Wilson, Director, AECOM

Ruth Geeson, Associate Director, Sustainable Engineering, CBRE 

Ann-Marie Aguilar, Director of Operations, Europe at International WELL Building Institute 

Barry Jobling, Partner, Hoare Lea

Philippa Gill, Partner, Verdextra 

Beatriz Gonzalez, Project Director, Scott Brownrigg

Jennifer Hardi, Senior Lecturer, London South Bank University 

Ray Fong, Associate, Sheppard Robson / IDSR

Mira Doheny, Business Development, Sheppard Robson / IDSR

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When you consider that people spend an average of over 82,000 hours at work during their lifetime, it is therefore essential that employers get the best out of their workforce. Part of this is ensuring these workers have the right working environment in which to operate. The discussion looked at past practice, the evolution of the workplace and debated the various actions the industry can take to create offices that are fit for the future. 

‘There’s been a change from everyone having a desk, to no one having a desk and no one having a phone. It’s a ‘clear desk’ scenario,’ said Ant Wilson. He emphasised the important role acoustics play in the open working environment and the need for privacy. ‘You cannot get around good acoustical quality,’ he added. 

Ann Marie Aguila made the point from the health perspective, commenting: ‘Historically, we came from a place where everything was designed to maximise space, make it worth its money, and not really think about the human condition. The mental stress associated with poor acoustics is astonishing. When people stop work due to being interrupted, it can take, on average, close to 27 minutes to return to the same level of concentration. When you look at those statistics in terms of productivity and mental stress, we need to really think about the human aspect.’

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On the question of form versus function, Barry Jobling said: ‘Looking back at the past, aesthetics have too often ruled the roost, arguably more than function. In practice, this imbalance can lead to poor acoustics and we know that this affects how people go about their work.’

There was a consensus amongst panelists on the need for early engagement with the client to ensure spaces are functional as well as good. ‘We often start from the wrong place. We shouldn’t ask the people in the boardroom what they want because they are going to typically be five to 10 years out of date,’ said Philippa Gill. ‘Find a space that works for everyone because, if you ignore them, it will destroy your business.’ 

‘You can do a wonderful design but if it’s not functional you are not answering the brief from the client,’ added Beatriz Gonzalez. 

Ray Fong stressed the importance of bringing other specialisms, which would normally come at a post-occupancy level, early in the design process. ‘It would help bring a sense of place and identity to the actual employees of the workplace,’ he said. 

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When designing the layout of an office, it’s imperative to get the balance right between the collaborative and open agile spaces, and the more enclosed quieter areas, which give people their own territory. It’s why several panelists advocated the use of occupancy surveys as a way to match the design of a workplace to the way the space is utilised. ‘We have been doing a lot of pre-occupancy surveys,” said Peter Swallow. ‘What is it about their existing space they want to capture in the new building? Of course, it isn’t only about the raw data, one-on-one interviews are also important. You have to have a briefing process to get under the skin of a company and understand what it is about their working culture.’

If the focus is on gathering places rather than areas for quiet work, staff can think their privacy is compromised, especially if their work requires focus and a great deal of concentration. It’s about creating spaces that provide a diversity of impact. This was reiterated by Ann Marie, who said: ‘As professionals, we have a duty of care to design places that are not just going to inspire people but are healthy, thought-provoking, and create habits and routines.’ 

On the role of manufacturers within the design process, Joe Cilia emphasised the importance of talking to manufacturers, saying: ‘If you’ve got an idea, no matter how odd it feels, talk to the manufacturers. That’s how products are developed.’

Moving forward, there was agreement about the need to design for maintainability, adaptability and flexibility. ‘Ultimately the way we design buildings has to fundamentally reflect what the driver is from people,’ concluded Ant. 

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