Modular acoustics

Room acoustics play a decisive role in determining how we feel in our built environment; whether we find the atmosphere pleasant and soothing or stressful and distracting.

We are continuously exposed to noise, tones and voices – all of which are very powerful sensations. Our hearing is extremely sensitive and always switched on, even when we are asleep. It thus accounts for a correspondingly large part of how we perceive our environment. And we cannot simply turn it off, even when everything around us gets too loud and stressful.

Acoustics is a complex and extremely important issue, especially in the workplace, where new ways of working and open plan spaces are becoming increasingly popular. This brochure aims to answer relevant questions, define key terms and provide examples of acoustically enhanced USM Modular Furniture Haller and USM Privacy Panels that complement architectural design.

The development of a modular absorption system using acoustically enhanced USM elements is the result of a long-standing partnership between USM and renowned acoustician Dr. Christian Nocke, Akustikbüro Oldenburg.

Eight fundamental questions about room acoustics

1. As the user, architect or builder of a building, why should I be concerned with this issue?

The most important question concerning room acoustics is: What surfaces should I use to create optimum listening conditions in a room? The surfaces – walls, floors and ceilings, together with fixtures and fittings – are the basic components of the architecture. They form the space in which we live, work, communicate and relax. The materiality, characteristics and quality of these surfaces determine the essence of an architectural design.

Good room acoustics are not a luxury or optional extra – they are an integral part of good, well-conceived architectural design. And that’s why they concern everyone involved. It is thought that around 70 percent of the working population work in offices. Studies and surveys repeatedly show that alongside lighting conditions, acoustics are the most significant factor determining the well-being and thus the productivity of office workers. This is all the more important when we consider that informal communication in open plan, flexible office spaces is becoming more widespread and workers generally perceive noise as the most significant source of disturbance in the workplace.

Where there is less noise, there is less stress, more concentration, a lower turnover of workers and fewer days lost to stress-related illness. In short: A company which takes active steps to improve room acoustics will save a great deal of money in the long term.

  • If as a user or tenant, I discover that rooms which initially seemed ideal for my purposes in fact suffer from poor acoustics, I will face unexpected expenses as a consequence.

  • If as an architect, I neglect to take acoustics into account during the design process, I will have to live with the fact that visible surfaces and room structures in the building may be subsequently changed.

  • If as a builder or investor, I neglect to take acoustics into account during the design process, I may have to invest in additional structural measures at a later date to create a more comfortable ambience.

But good room acoustics is not just important for ensuring a comfortable office environment: Reducing noise levels also has a positive impact in other sensitive areas, such as large lobbies, libraries, hotels or canteens. Acoustic problems can also occur in private homes, especially ones with high ceilings and hard surfaces made from glass, exposed concrete or screed. Anyone who values good room acoustics in their private domain, for instance someone who genuinely appreciates listening to music and has a particularly high quality audio playback system, would not willingly give up acoustically enhanced surfaces having once experienced their effect.

2. Why do buildings so often require retrofit treatment to improve room acoustics?

Contemporary energy concepts such as thermally active components are indispensable in modern architectural design. They ensure that resources are used responsibly, as well as providing a high level of comfort and a pleasant room environment for the users of the building.

The same applies to modern office concepts in new or old buildings: Open-plan, transparent working environments which encourage communication are becoming increasingly important. Many workplaces have moved completely away from rigid hierarchies and office structures to teamwork in flexible arrangements. It has now been proven that creativity arises far more from encounters and exchanges than by working in isolation in the ivory tower of a cellular office. Open-plan layouts make more efficient use of space and allow users to respond flexibly to changing team compositions. They can be made more enclosed, or airier, and it is easy to recon - figure space allocations and groupings.

Both these developments have given fresh impetus to architecture, creating new possibilities and prospects for architectural design. But they don’t necessarily have a positive impact on room acoustics. Since it is extremely expensive to clad thermoactive concrete surfaces, the proportion of sound-absorbing surfaces in rooms is in decline. Many workers find the noise level in open-plan offices generally disturbing; it distracts them and makes them feel stressed. And it’s not the volume of colleagues’ conversations or telephone calls which is distracting so much as their content, which we are unable to ignore. When it comes to our awareness, speech always has priority; we can close our eyes, but not our ears.

3. How can we overcome this problem?

Various measures can remedy the situation: Specially equipped furniture, flexible zoning modules, special plaster, certain textiles such as carpets or curtains, sound-absorbing partition walls, acoustic floating ceiling panels or other types of absorber. In simple terms, these sound-absorbing elements help convert sound energy into another energy form, thereby allowing it to be extracted from the room. By making the room audibly quieter, we find speech easier to understand.

USM solutions combine acoustically enhanced USM Modular Furniture Haller with USM Privacy Panels to provide sound absorption and sound screening – the two essential factors for good room acoustics. The use of these systems helps to effectively condition the room without the need for structural modifications. USM Haller provides ample storage space as well as sound-absorbing surfaces, whilst USM Privacy Panels create diverse zoning opportunities.

4. How does metal furniture improve room acoustics?

Non-specialists have some very wide-ranging and in some cases, rather inaccurate ideas of how sound is absorbed. For instance, it’s not unreasonable to think that a perforated surface simply “swallows” sound through the holes. But what happens immediately behind the holes through which the sound passes unimpeded is more important. Acoustically enhanced USM Haller furniture has perforated doors and panels lined with special acoustic fleece which absorbs sound.

Still more important is the volume of the sound-absorbing element, in this case the storage space encased by the perforated doors, sides and back panels of an item of furniture. It is this enclosed space in an acoustically enhanced USM Haller filing cabinet or sideboard which increases the fleece’s ability to absorb sound. The enclosed air volume acts like a resonating body in the same way as a musical instrument, except in this case it absorbs sound even when the furniture is full.

The perforated surface material in this set-up of the USM Haller furniture is less important due to its high degree of perforation – the acoustically enhanced USM elements are also effective when made from powder coated steel. These sound-absorbing elements reduce reverberation time, thereby increasing often crucial speech intelligibility – making them just as effective as wall or ceiling panels made e.g. from wood.

5. How do USM Privacy Panels complement the USM Modular Furniture Haller?

USM Privacy Panels are vertical room elements which, like USM Modular Furniture Haller, are also modular in design. This enables them to be configurated in a wide variety of ways, for example mounted on tables, or as freestanding panels for screening and zoning different areas of the room. They are based on a “leaf” principle and have a tubular structure like the USM Haller. USM Privacy Panels can be arranged linearly or in a corner configuration, flexibly extended and combined with USM Haller furniture. Their acoustically enhanced, textile surface with slightly overlapping individual panels creates an impression of softness. Unlike the perforated fleece absorbers, USM Privacy Panels are designed as classic, porous sound absorbers, the sound entering through their sound-permeable surface. The closed surface supports their shielding effect. Their low thickness results in sound absorption in the medium and high frequency range, perfectly complementing the absorption capacity of the USM Modular Furniture Haller, which achieves maximum absorption at low and medium frequencies. Here too, the benefits of modular design are apparent in the acoustic interaction between USM Privacy Panels and USM Haller.

6. The benefits of the USM Modular Furniture Haller are obvious – but what does modular absorption mean?

One of the outstanding strengths of USM products is their modularity. Within standard USM dimensions, they enable you to create custom-fit solutions and to respond flexibly to changing requirements. These strengths are directly transferable to sound absorption and sound shielding. Depending on the individual elements and their dimensions, using acoustic calculations and precise measurements it is possible to determine the ideal location for an item of furniture or USM Privacy Panels and how much acoustically optimised surface area is needed in a room.

In terms of furniture this means that perforated elements can be used simply in the back or side panels or in the doors as well, depending on the requirements and whether the furniture is free-standing or placed against a wall. In terms of USM Privacy Panels it means that you can respond to your specific needs by using the necessary surface areas and creating different spatial configurations. USM products thus provide modular – and acoustic – solutions tailored to the needs of every room.

7. Can I simply upgrade my existing USM furniture?

Yes, the surface elements can easily be replaced, which in itself is enough to make the enclosed volume acoustically effective. And one advantage over other systems is that nothing has to be inserted or attached, the furniture does not get any bigger, nor is any storage space or other aspect of functionality lost. If a room needs more shielding, we recommend supplementing the furniture with USM Privacy Panels.

8. That sounds good, but it comes at a price. Is it worth making an investment of this kind?

Undoubtedly – because any investment in room acoustics is an investment in the wellbeing, health, ability to concentrate and thus the efficiency of your employees. Optimum room acoustics in the workplace reduce stress and increase wellbeing. It is possible to quantify the cost of every day of absence or every loss of concentration and interruption to work processes – there are numerous studies on this subject. An investment in carefully planned room acoustics or a later retrofit solution quickly pays for itself and makes a lasting impact.

Issues regarding room acoustics touch all aspects of life and affect our wellbeing at a fundamental level. In the office they have a major influence on employee satisfaction, productivity and health management. The modularity of the USM Haller system combined with the newly developed USM Privacy Panels enables you to create custom-fit solutions to improve room acoustics – not as a retrofit, but as an integral part of the overall room design.

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