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5 Ways to Reduce HVAC Noise in an Open Office Space

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Last Updated on February 8, 2018

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Walk into a modern NYC office, and you’ll find a very different environment than you did just a few years ago. For decades, a ring of private offices surrounding a central cubical farm was the norm. Today, modern offices are much more open, featuring different types of spaces designed for team collaboration, individual focused work and everything in between. While open environments are a boon for business in many ways, sound distractions such as HVAC noise can lower productivity in these environments.

Read on to learn some effective strategies for HVAC noise reduction, as well as one way you can use HVAC noise to your advantage.

Are the benefits of your open office design compromised by acoustics problems?

Getting rid of individual offices and cubicles is bringing enormous benefits to both businesses and employees:

  • Bringing in more daylight to improve employee experience and boost productivity
  • Helping attract talent by showing off a thriving company culture
  • Encouraging collaboration and stimulating ideas
  • Reducing space costs, since more workers can be accommodated with less space that’s better designed for employees needs

However, one area where open office design can fall short is addressing acoustics. According to a survey conducted by BUILDINGS magazine, 33% of respondents named acoustics as something they would like to change about their office environment, and the problem is about more than annoyance. Another study by Steelecase and Ipsos found that noise distraction cost workers as much as 86 minutes per day in lost productivity. Workers report two primary sources of noise distraction in the open office: HVAC noise and voices of nearby co-workers.

Here’s some good news: you can have that beautiful open plan office and still have peace and quiet for getting work accomplished. How? Both HVAC noise and voice distraction can be addressed with better attention to HVAC design.

Tactics for reducing HVAC noise in an open office environment

First things first: make sure your HVAC noise problem is not caused by a malfunctioning system. Has the problem gotten worse recently? Is it making different noises than usual, or louder ones? Read this article to find out possible causes: How to Fix That Noisy Air Conditioner That’s Driving You Crazy

If your HVAC noise problem is not a new or worsening situation, then the cause is a poorly designed system.

1. Choose a quieter type of HVAC equipment

If your air conditioning system has been in place for a while, you probably have an older type of system that only runs at a single capacity, and may even be oversized for your space. This is a common cause of HVAC noise problems. When a system is oversized, it commonly turns on and off frequently. And every time it turns on, it runs at full blast. The constantly changing noise level can be very distracting for workers.

If you suspect it’s time for a system upgrade, look into a newer type of HVAC technology: VRF systems. These systems are designed to run at the exact capacity needed for the current conditions in your space. So instead of fans blaring and shutting off every few minutes, the system runs continuously at a lower capacity. That means a much quieter operation and less distracting HVAC noise for workers.

BONUS: The efficiency of VRF systems also reduces your energy expenses, too.

Learn more: 7 Reasons to Choose VRF Technology for Your New Air Conditioning

2. Carefully choose locations & operation of fans and air handlers

Did you redesign your office space without changing the design of your HVAC system? If so, you might have ducts and air handlers located in the wrong spots for the new layout. This can lead to distracting HVAC noise, as well as poor comfort conditions including hot and cold spots.

Even if you did replace your HVAC system, it’s possible that your building contractor may have failed to consult with HVAC design experts during the design phase of your project. When that happens, poor HVAC choices are frequently made that result in a poorly performing system, as well as a noisy one.

Learn more: HVAC System Design: 6 Strategies for Modern Office Spaces

3. Add sound boots

Sound boots help to control HVAC noise and reduce the movement of cross talk throughout your space. Depending on your installation, this can be a quick and easy way to improve acoustics in your open office space.
This is just one strategy that HVAC design experts use to both reduce and relocate HVAC noise in your office space.

4. Make quiet areas more comfortable

Does your office have pod or phone-booth type areas for quiet phone conversations? Theoretically, this should provide a way for people who really need quiet to escape from the open office area that can be noisy. However, people often complain that these closed-in spaces become like a greenhouse after an hour or so. Make them more comfortable with adequate ventilation and temperature control.

5. Improve acoustics with sound absorbing materials

Modern office designs tend to include high ceilings and lots of hard, smooth surfaces such as metal and glass. These materials look beautiful and inviting, but tend to bounce sound around the space. For HVAC noise control, include materials that absorb sound without compromising design, such as carpets, drop ceiling and wall coverings that look more like unique pieces of art. Green plants are another great option that also have health and wellbeing benefits for your employees.

BONUS: Use sound masking to address speech privacy acoustics

Our last tactic is a way that you can use HVAC noise to combat the most common source of noise distraction in the workplace: nearby speech sounds.

It turns out that the thing about voices that distracts workers is not the volume, but how distinctly the speech can be understood, also called “intelligibility.” The more words workers understand when they hear voices nearby, the more they become distracted.

One very useful solution is to provide a low level of background “white noise” that reduces the intelligibility of speech sounds. Installing an HVAC system, such as VRF technology described above, that runs at a constant speed with low noise can do the trick.

Want to learn more about the best types of HVAC equipment for office spaces like yours? Here’s a resource that can help you understand the options: The Ultimate Guide to NYC Light Commercial Air Conditioning.

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