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Acoustic Design Without Compromise

June 28, 2018

Let's go on a journey through the importance of targeted acoustics, acoustic requirements, sound absorbing panels.

In a new era of enhanced acoustic design for commercial spaces, the A&D community is searching for products that create comfortable environments and a cohesive design aesthetic. While baffles, clouds, and other free-hanging solutions are an option for atrium and common spaces, the vast majority of healthcare, education, and office projects require suspended ceilings in at least one room or area of the building.

Due to advances in design and materials, contemporary ceiling panel choices include a wide range of acoustic performance levels, visuals and price-points. This abundance of options has made specification more complex, but also more significant.

Because the choice of a ceiling panel can have a dramatic impact on the design of a space and the experience of its occupants, it is critical for architects and designers to specify the right panel to achieve the best acoustic performance in each space without compromising visual impact or budget.

Understanding the importance of targeted acoustics

There’s a common misconception in the industry that a premium ceiling panel providing maximum sound absorption and noise blocking can be used throughout a project. The reality is often quite the contrary.

Commercial architecture and design projects involve multiple spaces with diverse acoustic requirements. Therefore, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all ceiling panel. While a premium panel may seem like the right answer for the entirety of the building, consider the price you pay for a level of performance that is simply unnecessary in some spaces.

By targeting acoustic performance to individual rooms and spaces, architects and designers can avoid over engineering and keep the budget under control by investing in premium performance only where necessary. Plus, selecting complementary products or collections with a consistent visual ensures they maintain the integrity of the original design.

This approach--referred to as targeted acoustics at CertainTeed Ceilings--is fundamental to creating contemporary built environments for education, healthcare, and commercial spaces that promote learning, healing, and productivity.

Determining the acoustic requirements of a space

Specifying the right ceiling panel for a space begins with determining the type of sound control required (absorption of sound within the space or blocking noise from spreading to adjacent spaces) and the level of each.

First, address the purpose of the space and the activities for which it is intended. Is it a space for focus and concentration or socialization and collaboration? Will private or confidential conversations take place there? The acoustic requirements of a collaborative space for creative professionals are different from those of a suite of legal offices.

Second, think about the people who will occupy that space on a day-to-day basis. Will it be occupied by a handful of individuals or large groups? Will any of the occupants be elderly or hearing impaired? The number of occupants can have a substantial impact on acoustics, especially in education facilities and office buildings that feature waves of occupants in between classes, during mealtimes or during peak commuting times.

Third, examine the physical properties of the space in relation to the building and its environment. Are there a lot of hard, reflective surfaces like concrete or glass? What activities will be taking place in adjacent spaced? In addition, make sure to take into account sources of sound besides the occupants themselves. HVAC systems, machinery, office, and medical equipment all have an effect on acoustic requirements.

The answers to these questions will point toward the level of sound absorption and/or noise blocking required for each space.

Most spaces require at least some level of sound absorption, which helps control background noise and quiets the room. Key indications that a high level of sound absorption is necessary include activities requiring occupants to focus or concentrate, larger numbers of occupants, spaces with a lot of hard surfaces, and occupants with impaired hearing.

Noise blocking, on the other hand, limits the amount of noise leaking into adjacent rooms, and it’s not always necessary — particularly in open spaces. Situations that demand noise blocking include performance activities, activities or events involving one speaker communicating to a large group, a need to maintain privacy or confidentiality, and adjacent spaces that require peace and quiet.

Matching the panel to the performance  

Once the type and level of acoustic performance for a space has been determined, the next step is to identify the ceiling panels that meet those criteria. The key pieces of information that indicate the acoustic performance of a ceiling panel are the Noise Reduction Coefficient (NRC), the Ceiling Attenuation Class (CAC) and the material composition of the panel.

Sound absorbing panels: NRC rating indicates the level of sound absorption provided by a panel and is calculated by averaging how much sound it absorbs at four different frequencies. This figure is commonly represented as a decimal between 0.00 (no absorption at all) and 1.00 (complete absorption), rounded to the nearest 0.05. The highest levels of sound absorption are typically achieved with fiberglass panels.

For maximum sound absorption, look for products with NRC 0.90 – 1.00. These are typically high-density fiberglass panels or composite panels with a fiberglass face. However, technologies have progressed to the point that even mineral fiber panels can achieve NRC ratings in the 0.75 – 0.80 range.

Examples of spaces requiring high levels of sound absorption include open offices, cafeterias and dining areas, libraries, and waiting areas.

Noise blocking panels: NRC is important, but it tells us nothing about a panel’s noise blocking capabilities. For that, you must look at CAC. This is the measurement of the ceiling’s ability to inhibit sound transmission between two rooms separated by a ceiling-height partition, which is key for spaces that require speech privacy.

“Separated by a ceiling-height partition” is an important distinction. High CAC products are not typically required for projects where the wall assemblies are built to deck, such as school classrooms and corridors. In these instances, the wall assembly itself performs the sound blocking function.

Maximum noise blocking is indicated by CAC of 40 or higher. Anything above 35 is considered high performance. These are typically mineral fiber panels, gypsum panels, or composite panels with a mineral fiber or gypsum backing.

Spaces requiring high levels of noise blocking include healthcare exam and procedure rooms, executive and HR offices, conference rooms, and auditorium or performance spaces.

Striking the right balance

Creating a comfortable environment for building occupants is the goal of design. And thanks to the variety acoustic ceilings panels there are more options than ever before. However, since the choice of ceiling panel can have a dramatic impact on the design of a space and the experience of its occupants, it’s more important than ever to understand the benefits of targeting the acoustic performance to the space.

Fortunately, there are product collections available that offer a wide range of acoustic performance specifications – from maximum absorption without blocking to maximum blocking with standard absorption to a balance of both – all with a consistent visual. Such collections provide the opportunity to create commercial spaces with optimal acoustic performance without compromising the design vision or the project’s budget.

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