September 2022 Newsletter: Multifamily Offices

The pandemic has changed our work environment. Many people are working under a hybrid model – a few days per week from their office and a few from home; others are completely remote. While these work paradigms vary across industries, working from home (WFH) is now more common than ever and here to stay. Read on to learn more about how WFH is reshaping the acoustical landscape of our dwellings.

With WFH, residences take on a dual purpose: office by day and home in the evening. From an acoustical perspective, several questions come to the fore: how do the environments of WFH and WFO compare, and is the acoustical environment of the home conducive for work previously performed in an office?

Acoustical isolation is very important for both offices and multifamily residential buildings. Some primary elements to consider when designing for appropriate acoustical isolation are:
• Sources of unwanted and disruptive sounds
• Sound isolation performance of partitions
• Background sound levels
These three elements play off each other to inform our perception of sound isolation. For example, a room with a low background sound level enclosed by walls having low sound isolation ratings generally offers a low degree of perceived acoustical isolation. However, simply raising the background sound level in the room can improve the sense of privacy. This is what makes sound masking so effective at improving speech privacy in open offices, where there are no walls separating coworkers.

Background sound levels typically come from HVAC systems and exterior noise transmitting through a building façade. One generally expects background sound in a residential setting to be lower than in an office building; additionally, background sound levels in urban environments are expected to be higher than residences in suburban or rural areas. Higher background sound levels aren’t necessarily a bad thing, and they can actually be very useful in masking sound from neighbors in a multifamily building. Many people use electronic noise generators or fans to increase the level of background sound when sleeping.

Another factor that is common to both residential and office buildings are shared walls. One generally expects to have more privacy in their home as compared to their office, so, for the most part, walls between dwelling units in a multifamily building should provide more isolation than those in an office scenario.

With everyone WFH, complaints about intrusive noise from their neighbors has increased. Comparing the typical sources of sound in each environment, this should come as no surprise. In an office environment, most sound sources are either fairly low-level and steady-state (HVAC, sound masking, etc.) or intermittent and expected (laughter, conversations, ringing phones, etc.). A multifamily residential setting opens a Pandora’s box of possible intruding sounds: screaming and running children, animals reacting to screaming and running children, that one neighbor with the impressive sound system who frequently appreciates said system, the do-it-yourselfer hard at work down the hall. These are all fair-game sound sources and only the beginning of an exhaustive list. Combine high-level sounds, low background levels, and walls that are low performing, and you can kiss a productive WFH day good-bye.

Looking ahead, it will be beneficial to consider the function of a multifamily residential unit beyond just a dwelling space. The level of isolation needed in homes has expanded as people discuss their professional business in addition to their personal business.

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