In this post, I'm going to examine a hypothetical small open plan office, and the optimal way to treat the space acoustically. Check out the publication related to some of the theory I'm going to base this on here. I'm going to make the example geometrically simple, so the result will be clear and somewhat intuitive.
A hypothetical simplified small open plan office is shown in the picture to the left. The spheres and cubes represent the possible positions for the office workers.
I'll assume that sturdy office screens are placed air-tightly against the wall and floor, so that sound doesn't leak through the edges of the screens. I'll also ignore any sound diffracted over the screens.
The sturdy office screens isolate sounds very well; this means that sound doesn't travel directly from one position to another, but instead through diffraction (which I assume to be negligible) and reflections.
First degree reflections are relatively easy to predict. Second degree reflections are already significantly harder to predict. Third degree reflections are very hard to predict without computer simulations. Third order reflections (and above) are often already far from intuitive.
I wish to hear as little as possible of my coworkers. The office screens already attenuate direct sound. But this is not enough. If I don't consider the other routes the sounds travel from one position to another, the screens will function as little more than visual barriers.
So what do I want to do? It turns out that early reflections are almost always the most important reflections to consider when one wishes to affect speech intelligibility. Another important factor is the background noise level, but I'll assume that the ventilation provides a decent amount of masking noise. Keep in mind that by early reflections I mean reflections arriving early on in time, without taking any notice of how complicated the path the reflection has traveled is.
I'll make the following goal: I want to get rid of the early reflections as effectively as possible, using a relatively small amount of absorbing material, such as acoustic panels. Let's assume that I can't place anything on the floor, as it would make cleaning (and walking around the room) too difficult. What is the optimal way to place the absorption?
The figure to the left shows the places where absorbing material should be placed, with dark blue representing the most important positions. There are two places where the placement of absorbing material is very central in this example; the ceiling above the office workers and the wall on the opposite side of them. In this simple case, the answer is fairly intuitive. For more complex situations, this is not always the case.