We have been asked about soundscapes quite a lot recently, so I thought it would be useful explain when they should be considered. “The soundscape is the component of the acoustic environment that can be perceived by humans” (Wikipedia) In our terms consisting of sounds from nature such as running water, wind blowing and/or animal sounds. Although it’s a standard, built-in feature of our system, it should be used with caution.
Sound masking, a technology which has evolved from the first white noise systems in the 1950’s to the very accurate, multi-zonal, adaptive systems we use today have one thing in common - they are designed not to be consciously ‘heard’ by the user. The unobtrusive, non-distracting nature of sound masking is deliberately similar to air conditioning so the occupant of the space is not aware of it.
Soundscaping is useful in certain circumstances. In audibly isolated spaces such as cafe or breakout and relaxation areas additional sounds can add character. If you imagine having a coffee in the office cafe area, it’s obviously a cafe within the office but having used all the practical and visual cues - a real espresso machine and cafe furniture all that’s needed to complete the atmosphere of that place is the sound. With the addition of background cafe sound perhaps a real cafe or just music you can imagine the enhancement to the overall concept. In relaxation zones, the design may suggest how you might use the space but overlaying natural sound will only enhance it for your daily meditation.
The problems occur when you use these sounds throughout the open-plan or cellular office/meeting space. Sound masking increases productivity in open-plan by increasing the ambient sound level (in line with AS2107) to decrease speech intelligibility. The less detail of other conversations you hear, the longer you can stay focused and productive. Sound masking provides this benefit without the user being aware of it. If the sound used is that of a river running or wind blowing no matter how sophisticated its construction, it eventually becomes irritating to at least some of the occupants leading to negative feelings which spread quickly throughout the organisation. This is the fundamental no-go for ambient sound management and very high risk strategy for any customer attempting to create a healthy and productive workplace.
In cellular space, low level sound masking is used to increase confidentiality by improving the effectiveness of the ceiling and partition walls (often enabling the use of floor to ceiling partitioning only, rather than more expensive slab to slab building - see our post about ANU in Canberra where significant savings where made on the fit-out) Sounds from nature are clearly irrelevant here.
In summary, sound masking is a necessary part of a working environment to decrease distraction between workers and increase confidentiality of conversation in cellular space. Soundscaping is a useful addition to this for non-work locations and should not be considered for the entire workplace.