Many of us who own or work in a counseling office have been there: We do everything we can to make sure that our client’s personal information is safe and secure. We train staff on confidentiality, buy expensive cabinets to house client charts and related documentation, and may even have an electronic medical records system so that we are compliant with all privacy laws. But then, sitting in our office, we notice that we can practically hear the heartbeat of the clinician in the office next door. How can we maintain privacy for our clients if the sound transfer is so bad?
If you are building or remodeling, there are many things that you can do, and we will explore some of those ideas in a bit. But what if you already have an office and cannot afford or are not allowed a full remodel? Fear not, there are a few things you can do to reduce sound transfer without breaking the bank. The best part is that most of them are easily undone should you leave your current digs.
Ideas to reduce sound transfer in offices that can’t be remodeled
- White noise machine or a radio: Placing a white noise machine or a radio in waiting areas will help reduce the ability of others to hear what is being said in your office. These items can be placed in the counseling office themselves if needed, depending on the level of sound transfer.
- Rugs: If you cannot do wall-to-wall carpeting, then throw rugs can help absorb noise. A thick rug is best, but be sure to consider tripping hazards and client mobility. Wheel chairs, canes and walkers do well on flat surfaces, whereas shag or fuzzy rugs can impact mobility, so give it some thought prior to purchasing.
- Seating layout: Do not face seating directly toward the door because this will direct sound to the door opening, which is the most vulnerable spot in most offices. Instead, have the seating face a wall so that the sound carries toward the walls rather than toward door openings. This will help reduce the amount of sound transfer from vulnerable door area gaps. This is especially key should you have a hollow core door.
- Fabric placements: Drapes or wall hangings can help absorb sound and reduce transfer. Also add pillows to furniture — the more the better, so long as they do not get in the way.
- Drop ceilings: If your office has drop ceilings, you can put insulation above the ceiling tiles to help reduce sound transfer.
- Wait times: One way to reduce the chances of people hearing what is happening in the clinical office is simple and free: Stagger the times of sessions so that one session is likely to be over before the next client arrives. This works regardless of the number of offices and requires just a bit of coordination.
Building or redesigning offices with sound in mind
You might rent or lease a building that allows you to build an office to suit your needs. In certain cases, the building owner may even assume some or all of the costs. In other cases, you will own the building and have the ability to remodel as you desire, so long as you follow building codes and secure the proper permits. Whether you are doing the work yourself or will simply supervise the project, here are some things to keep in mind to reduce sound transfer and increase overall privacy.
- Acoustical substitutes for wallboard: In some areas, it may be beneficial to not use traditional wallboard (Sheetrock) and instead to use one of the specialty acoustical boards on the market. Each offers superior sound deadening, but they can be expensive (five to 10 times the material cost of traditional wallboard). In all of the offices that I have transformed, we opted to use these products once, on one very sensitive wall.
- Acoustical putties, sealers, etc.: Often used with the substitute board, acoustical putty is used to seal around any cutouts in the board such as outlets, light fixtures, etc. The sealer goes on all wall studs and any surface with which the wallboard will come into contact. It cuts down on sound transfer. I have used this only in the most problematic areas where I used acoustical wallboard.
- Solid core doors: Although they are more expensive than hollow core doors, solid core doors offer more sound deadening/sound deflection. Some solid core doors are made of solid wood, whereas others offer a composite interior that is designed to block more sound. The choice is yours because both have much to offer. Should your office be very problematic, doors designed to block sound are the way to go. In recent remodels, we have chosen to install prehung exterior doors that come with weatherstripping for our offices. While they are designed to keep air out, they also offer superior sound deadening compared with general interior doors that are on the market, and yet they cost about the same as a good quality interior door.
- Wall-to-wall carpeting: Hard wood or other hard surface floors are beautiful and can last a lifetime compared with wall-to-wall carpeting, but carpeting does more to absorb sound than hard surfaces can.
- Sound-deadening insulation: If the walls have not yet been built or are going to be opened up, sound-deadening insulation is a must. Materials for an average-size office will cost hundreds of dollars but will also offer some of the most effective sound deadening. When framing new walls, building codes may allow for 24-inch spacing of the wall studs. However, it is often far more cost-effective to stick with 16-inch-on-center setup, meaning that every wall stud is installed 16 inches apart from the one next to it if measured from the center of the stud. This is the most commonly used spacing for walls that are being insulated. As such, the cost of the insulation for 16 inch is far cheaper.
It is important to remember to do all walls, including the interior walls, to have effective sound deadening in the office. Whenever possible, also ad sound-deadening insulation in the ceilings and floors.
- Doorway placement: Doorways can be one of the biggest sources of sound transfer. If you have the option, avoid having office doors open directly into waiting areas. Instead, try to have a hallway between so that any sound that may escape does not go directly into the waiting area. If this is not possible, see the earlier suggestions for seating layout and white noise machines.
- Avoid trendy: More and more old buildings are being converted from factories into office spaces. These areas are often beautifully urban and ultra-trendy. One of the biggest drawbacks to these spaces, however, is the trend to build the walls only 8 feet tall even though the ceilings may be 14 to 20 feet.
Our current office was once designed to look like a barn, so some of the space once had two-and-a-half-story-tall walls. Instead of open air at 8 feet, we added a ceiling. It helped prevent sound transfer and also added 1,600 square feet of additional office space on the new floor above.
Failing to close the overhead area tends to give you a glorified cubicle because the gap between the walls and the ceiling allows for sound to move freely. In a sense, these spaces are even worse than cubicles sound wise because cubicles often have soft materials on their walls to help absorb sound. Some even come with doors and ceilings for added privacy. No sound machine, carpet or other items can overcome several feet of open space (unless the noise machine is set very loud, and that would also affect the session space).
Should your space have very tall ceilings, spend the money to bring the walls up to meet them, or have a lower ceiling built on top of the walls.
- Supervise the build: Some of us will tackle all or most of these jobs ourselves and do well. Many of us, however, lack the time or ability to take on some of these tasks. Should you hire all or some of the work out to contractors, do not be shy about making your requirements and desires known. Go out to the job site and supervise every aspect of the build. Make sure that sound-deadening insulation is used in every area (there are many brands with various levels of deadening, so be sure that the right one is used for your project).
Sometimes, a busy crew might neglect some of the cavities that require custom cuts to the insulation. Other times, they may honestly forget to install something that you ordered. Whatever the case, having you there with the plans can help ensure that the build goes as desired. Remember that in most cases, a mistake is just that — so present it to the contractors in a polite manner, without accusation. Whenever possible, find a contractor with experience in sound abatement because that should increase the likelihood of the process going smoothly.
Sound transfer remains a large issue for many offices, whether for-profit or nonprofit. With a bit of research and planning, much can be done. A little elbow grease and some creativity can take you far.
“Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator and writer, and the founder, developer, and clinical and executive director of Community Counseling of Central CT Inc. (www.docwarren.org) and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (www.pillwillop.org). He is certified as a counselor and counsellor supervisor in the United States and Canada. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.