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Sound Advice: The Importance of Sound in Design

Johnstown Estate & Spa Restaurant by MILLIMETRE DESIGN

Most recently in our “Detailed by Design” series, Millimetre Design’s Managing Director, Ronan Holohan, pressed his point on the importance of touch. This time he addresses the equally important but far less tangible issue of sound.

Sound has a huge, but often underappreciated impact on peoples’ experiences of a space. While it can’t be seen, it must marry with the environment the individual is in. Done right it can be soothing and invigorating. Done badly it can have a deeply negative effect. While effective planning and working with an experienced sound engineer is always the best option, we can’t always control the environment we’re working in, for example if we’re designing an outdoor space or working within the confines of a listed building. However, it will hopefully come as music to your ears that there are steps you can take to make sure sound doesn’t become an issue.

Below are three common situations, where poor sound management can have serious consequences and some suggestions on what can be done to address them.

 The Open-Plan Office

The Problem:

In recent years, in a bid to promote greater collaboration and communications, there has been a general shift towards more open plan offices. The partition walls have been removed and the hot desks rolled in.

But this has brought with it some major challenges. Excessive workplace noise can act as a stressor, impacting both employee well-being and productivity. Interestingly, one of the greatest office distractions is the sound of other people’s conversations. A study from the University of Sydney revealed 49 percent of open-plan employees described it as a major issue.


 The Fix:

One cheap and cheerful solution to dealing with irritating office noise is to simply turn on the radio. It’s something we practice at Millimetre Design HQ. Just be sure to make it something ambient.

If you’re issue goes beyond background noise then, provided you have the space, you might consider creating a dedicated quiet zone. Sound proof pods are becoming increasingly popular among businesses.

If that’s not an option, then it’s time to get down to your local garden centre. Plants have been shown to help reduce noise, while also creating a calming effect in any office environment. Just watch what type of plants you buy and be conscious of potential pollen allergies.

The materials you use also impact how sound will travel. Softer furnishing, such as cushions and carpets can absorb much of the noise that otherwise would bounce around the room. When designing Kingspan’s new Innovation centre, IKON, we were challenged with integrating and showcasing their exterior building products.

The combination of these exterior products and a lot of hard surfaces within the space, made noise reduction a critical factor. The first measure we took, was to use contemporary fabric wall panels and wallpaper where possible. Beyond that, the integration of background  music and decibel matting under surfaces all made this unique building work from a sound perspective correctly, for both guests and staff.

Conferences & Events

 If you’ve ever been at a conference, where the sound was poor, you’ll know just how irritating poor sound quality can be. Glass, has become an increasingly popular material throughout the Western World, and while it may look impressive, it does nothing for sound quality. Equally, older buildings, with hard, metallic surfaces do not lend themselves to an amazing audio experience.

The Westin in Dublin, faced just such a problem with the Banking Hall, its main function, wedding and conference space. A listed building, structural changes couldn’t be made to improve the acoustics of the space, and they were losing business as a result.

The Fix

In such situations, softer, sound absorbing textiles are your friend. In the case of the Westin we used textured fabrics instead of wallpapers, placed acoustic panels behind the mirrors in the room and hung curtains throughout the space, in areas such as the entrance door and behind the stage. The combination of these elements significantly reduced reverberation, thus improving overall sound quality. Most importantly, it reduced noise related customer complaints to zero, eliminating what had been an ongoing issue.

Westin Hotel Banking Hall by MILLIMETRE DESIGN:
Copyright 2016 Matthew Shaw.

The Hotel Bedroom

The Problem

From noisy air-con to rambunctious neighbours to wailing sirens from the streets below, it’s likely we’ve all had a poor hotel experience at some stage or another. After temperature and WiFi issues, bedroom noise is the most common reason for guest complaints.

The Fix

With so many sources of potential disruption it is essential to first establish where the issue is coming from. That means looking at all the elements within the space: The inner layer of windows, wall materials, flooring are the most obvious areas to address.

While multiple design details must be considered in resolving hotel room noise, what’s often overlooked is the number of times the wall is pierced with electrical sockets, switches and so forth. If there are too many and they’re not dealt with correctly, the noise transfer between rooms and corridors is virtually impossible to control.

Increasingly, in newer hotels the sockets and switches are all recessed into the headboard, not the wall. This significantly reduces the issue.

One Final Point

The sounds a person hears must compliment the visual data they’re also receiving. Even the slightest mismatch can have a jarring effect. Take spas as an example. Think about it, you wouldn’t visit a relaxing spa and expect to hear heavy metal in the background.

On the contrary, the music played in spas is often specifically designed to help you relax. Research from Brighton and Sussex Medical School, has proven that playing ‘natural sounds’ “affects the bodily systems that control the flight-or-fright and rest-digest autonomic nervous systems, with associated effects in the resting activity of the brain.”

We are currently working on the design for the refurbishment of Johnstown Estate Spa, paying particular attention to how sound can maximise the customer experience throughout the Spa. Smooth and relaxing music is key to creating the right atmosphere. But also focuses the guest on where they are and their space, rather than what is going on next door.

As ever, prevention is always better than the cure. Whenever possible, consider the function the space will serve when planning its design and how sound may be impacted.

Westin Hotel Restaurant by MILLIMETRE DESIGN

By Millimetre Design’s Managing Director, Ronan Holohan

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