The Architect’s Acoustic Checklist: Four Steps to Better Sounding Commercial Spaces

Aesthetics tend to take center stage in architectural design. But commercial architecture invariably involves the intersection of design, functionality, and occupant experience, so it’s important to consider how a space performs for all the senses, not just how it appears visually.

In terms of how a space impacts the people within it, one of the more undervalued aspects of architectural design is acoustics. That’s especially true of commercial interiors, where the quality of sound can significantly impact everything from operations to the well-being of employees and patrons.

From offices and schools to restaurants and performance spaces, acoustical design holds a pivotal role in ensuring commercial environments cater effectively to their intended purpose. As the complexities of modern architecture continue to expand, so too do the performance demands of the built environment. Designing a dynamic commercial space involves many moving parts, and architects are more frequently encountering the challenge of balancing aesthetics and acoustical performance.

Here, we’ll offer four steps for optimizing the acoustics of your project.

1. Consider Functionality First

In architectural design, form follows function. The same is true when it comes to sound control. With acoustics, the first step is to consider how a space will be used. Defining the primary purpose of the space will help you understand how you want sound to interact within it.

An open-plan office, for example, might require reduced ambient noise and volume levels to allow employees to concentrate. On the other hand, auditoriums might need sound to be naturally amplified so that all audience members can clearly hear what’s happening on stage.

2. Assess the Spatial Geometry

Analyzing the ambient noise in your environment is the next step in optimizing it for acoustics. Is it a large open space with high ceilings? Does it have long, narrow corridors? What kinds of materials are used in the construction of the space and how does sound move around them? What noise sources outside the building will penetrate inside? What building mechanicals and electrical equipment are present that will create unwanted ambient noise inside the building?

Buildings with large open spaces and lots of hard interior surfaces reverberate sound waves in ways that can be undesirable. Understanding these types of physical characteristics, along with the space’s intended use, will help form a strategy about what kind of sound control you’ll need to achieve the desired acoustic effect.

All of this entails recognizing and comprehending both the internal and external sound sources, evaluating the reverberation characteristics of existing structures, and, when applicable, employing acoustical modelling tools to predict the acoustical performance of the proposed designs. In almost all cases, consulting with an acoustical expert early in the process can have huge benefits for both the design process and, ultimately, the building’s overall acoustical performance.

3. Determine the Type of Acoustic Control

Once the building’s intended use and the spatial geometry are assessed, you can determine the type of acoustic treatment that’s needed. There are three primary types in architectural design: absorption, reflection, and diffusion.

Sound absorption involves materials and surfaces engineered to prevent sound from transmitting through walls and reduce the reflection of sound waves. It minimizes noise levels, giving the feel of lower volume overall and improving the auditory experience within a given space.

Absorption is ideal for spaces like offices, where employees require reduced noise levels for concentration and productivity; schools, where students require focused learning time; and hospitals, where patients need calm and quiet to heal and staff members need privacy when discussing medical cases.

Sound reflection, on the other hand, works inversely to absorption. Sound reflection involves surfaces that bounce sound waves back into the environment, altering the way occupants experience sound within a space. It contributes to auditory clarity because it amplifies sound in various environments.

Reflection is suited for spaces like concert halls, auditoriums, and lecture theaters, which should be designed to incorporate reflective surfaces that help project sound waves and ensure they reach the entire audience without significant loss or distortion. The strategic placement of reflective panels can enhance the auditory experience, enabling performers’ voices or musical instruments to clearly reach all audience members, even in the back rows.

Diffusion involves scattering sound waves in various directions within a space, creating a balanced and immersive auditory experience. Unlike absorption and reflection, which reduces or bounces sound energy, respectively, diffusion disperses sound waves evenly to minimize echoes and standing waves.

One of the primary applications of diffusion is in spaces like movie theaters and school band, orchestra, and choir rehearsal rooms. These environments demand precise control over acoustics to capture and produce high-quality audio. Sound diffusion panels or diffuser arrays are strategically placed on walls and ceilings to scatter sound waves, preventing the buildup of resonances and echoes. The result is a more accurate and pleasing audio recording, as it minimizes unwanted acoustic artifacts.

4. Specify the Right Products for Acoustics and Aesthetics

When you know the type of acoustic control the space needs, the final step is selecting architectural products designed to achieve that type of control. Wall and ceiling panels are often the go-to choice because they offer versatility in the type of control, the amount of control, and the aesthetics.

From baffles to clouds to wall treatments, acoustical panels can be created from a variety of materials in virtually any shape, size, form, or finish, which empowers you to create high-performing spaces that are also visually stunning.

Baffles and clouds are an excellent choice when you want to maintain an open, airy feel in a space. Suspended from the ceiling, they can offer both absorption and, with customization, reflection, while adding striking focal points. Wall treatments can offer absorption, reflection, or diffusion, while adding color, texture, and dimension to vertical surfaces. By choosing the right shape, size, and placement, you can transform a mundane ceiling or wall into a work of art that also enhances acoustics.

Whatever acoustical solution you choose, the material makeup will impact the look and sound. Composites, wood, and fabric-wrapped surfaces are all options that control sound while adding an expressive visual finish to a space. Work with an acoustical product expert to figure out what details are the right fit for you.

Choose AVL Systems For Best In-Class Acoustic Panels For high-end acoustical solutions that sound as good as they look, drop us a line at AVL Systems.

Our company offers panels designed for absorption, reflection, and diffusion, all in various materials, finishes, and 3D forms and shapes. Custom on-demand designs are also available.