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Harmonizing Commercial Spaces: Acoustic Enhancement With Window Shades

In architecture, acoustics are the qualities that determine how sound is transmitted through a particular space. Many people only think of acoustics when they're jamming out to their favorite bands, but sound quality affects every industry. If sound isn't transmitted clearly and effectively, it's tough for a salesperson to close a deal or a restaurant server to figure out if a patron wants the chicken or the fish.

Acoustics are especially important in offices, restaurants and conference rooms. In an office setting, good acoustics make it easier to concentrate. Occupants can also communicate without distracting reverberations. In restaurants, acoustics play an important role in keeping staff and patrons comfortable. Poor acoustics sometimes force people to shout over each other, creating an unpleasant cacophony. In conference rooms, speakers shouldn't have to compete with odd echoes or struggle to hear questions being posed from across the room.

Sound quality refers to the accuracy, intelligibility and enjoyability of sound. Intelligibility is one of the most important characteristics of sound quality, as it affects the listener's comprehension. If building occupants can't comprehend what they're hearing, it's difficult for a business to achieve its goals. Additionally, poor sound quality affects comfort, as occupants may have to strain to hear what other people are saying or cover their ears to avoid loud echoes and screeches.

Fortunately, certain building design practices make it possible to improve sound quality. Learn more about acoustic optimization in commercial spaces.

Acoustic Principles and Window Shade Technology

If you play an instrument outside, the sound travels in all directions. Playing indoors is a whole different experience. When you make a sound indoors, the sound waves bounce off ceilings, floors, furniture, walls and other objects. A sound wave and its reflections make up the acoustic pressure in a particular space.

Whether you're speaking, playing a musical instrument or giving a presentation to 100 people, you also need to think about standing waves. When two sound waves travel in opposite directions, their reflections off a wall, window or ceiling will interact with each other. This is known as interference. A standing wave is a new sound wave produced by the interference of two existing sound waves.

It's important to understand the following terms as they relate to the behavior of sound waves:

  • Reflection: Reflection is when the energy from a sound wave bounces in a different direction. For example, if a sound wave hits the podium in a conference room, it may bounce back toward the speaker instead of moving toward audience members.

  • Diffraction: Diffraction is the ability of a sound wave to bend after hitting an obstacle or spread out after escaping from a small opening.

  • Diffusion: When a sound wave bounces off of an object, it may hit several other objects, causing the sound to scatter at different angles. This is known as diffusion.

  • Resonance: Resonance occurs when the frequency of a sound wave matches a natural frequency in the space.

  • Absorption: When a sound wave hits an object, only some of the energy is reflected. The rest of it is absorbed. This is known as absorption.

The Role of Window Shades and Treatments

In a commercial space, windows have a big impact on sound quality. For example, think about what happens when you're in a large conference room with floor-to-ceiling windows. High-frequency sound waves tend to bounce off of windows while low-frequency waves are absorbed. This affects acoustic quality and makes it more difficult for people seated near the windows to hear everything.

The good news is that acoustic treatment solutions give you more control over how sound waves interact with the windows in a commercial building. Shades and other window treatments prevent sound waves from bouncing off of glass surfaces. They also reduce the amount of sound absorbed by windows. Therefore, window treatments are essential for enhancing room acoustics.

If you're responsible for acoustic optimization in commercial spaces, it's important to choose the right window treatments. You want something with a low openness factor to prevent sound waves from hitting the windows. Openness refers to the tightness of the weave in a fabric. The more open it is, the more sound and light it lets through.

Fabrics with low openness ratings block sound waves, preventing them from hitting window panes. However, the weave shouldn't be so tight that the shade turns into just another hard surface for the sound waves to hit. It's also helpful to choose shades that aren't perfectly flat. Cellular shades and other window treatments help to bounce and scatter sound waves, preventing echoes that interfere with intelligibility.

Advanced Window Treatments for Optimal Acoustic Performance

The noise reduction coefficient (NRC) of a fabric describes its average sound absorption performance. If you're responsible for acoustic optimization in commercial spaces, pay close attention to the NRC value of each fabric. The woven products available for roller shades typically have the following NRC values:

  • 1% fabrics: 0.5 to 0.6

  • 3% fabrics: 0.12 to .017

  • 5% fabrics: 0.03 to 0.05

  • 10% fabrics: Negligible/not often tested

It's also possible to purchase high-absorption acoustic fabrics. These fabrics are often used to improve acoustics in restaurants, concert halls and other noisy places, as they dampen sound effectively.

Beyond Window Shades: Complementary Acoustic Devices and Treatments

Installing window shades isn't the only way to improve the acoustics in a commercial space. Contexture specializes in helping building owners, managers and designers overcome their acoustic challenges. One of the best ways to improve sound quality is to use acoustical wall and ceiling products to help with reverberation, echoing and sound isolation.

Acoustic wall panels eliminate echoes and improve sound quality by absorbing sound waves. When sound is absorbed instead of reflected, it doesn't reverberate, making it easier for building occupants to understand what speakers are saying. These panels come in many shapes, sizes and colors, so you can easily find wall panels to match any aesthetic. Some wall panels also absorb heat, keeping commercial spaces more comfortable.

Acoustic ceiling tiles work much the same way, delivering important benefits for building owners and occupants. Due to their ability to absorb sound waves, acoustic ceiling tiles are excellent for reducing reverberation. These tiles also increase intelligibility, making them essential for commercial buildings. If you have acoustic ceiling tiles in offices, conference rooms and lecture halls, it's much easier for occupants to communicate. Acoustic ceiling tiles may even prevent costly misunderstandings caused by reverberation and echoes.

Innovative Acoustic Materials and Surfaces

Acoustic panels are usually made from foam, but they may also contain fiberglass, mineral wool or cellulose. You can also purchase sound diffusers made from molded plastic or polyvinyl chloride (PVC). With so many options available, you don't have to choose between sound quality and aesthetic appeal. It's possible to purchase sound-absorbing panels and diffusers in a wide range of styles and colors. You can also arrange the panels in custom patterns, giving you more control over the appearance of the space.

Customizable Acoustic Solutions for Specific Spaces

Whether you're designing a new building or updating a single room, it's important to tailor your acoustic solutions to the function of each space. What works in a quiet conference room probably isn't appropriate for a busy restaurant. Before purchasing shades, acoustic panels or acoustic ceiling tiles, consider the following:

  • How many people typically use the space at one time?

  • What is the main purpose of the space?

  • Does the space have any furniture, windows or other objects that reflect or absorb sound?

  • Is it a large, open space, or is it a small space designed for just one or two occupants?

  • Do people regularly gather in the space for meetings or meals?

To maintain design integrity, consider custom acoustic solutions instead of cobbling together acoustic solutions from different sources. A custom plan makes it easier to improve sound quality without compromising the aesthetic appeal of the space.

Find Custom Solutions

Acoustics have a big impact on comfort and productivity. If an occupant can't hear what other people are saying, they may miss critical details needed to perform their job duties. Poor acoustics may also affect a company's relationships with customers and vendors.

If you need help overcoming acoustic challenges, contact Contexture today. We're a third party consulting firm that can offer an objective point of view, and our Design-Assist team works directly with architects, designers and engineers to optimize the performance of commercial buildings. Learn more about our performance-based design approach and how our custom solutions can produce material savings for your project.