Dining out is a sensory experience. People go to restaurants to eat food they would not otherwise eat, in a setting that is enlivening (or relaxing, depending on the restaurant), and do things differently than they otherwise would. For restaurant designers and specifiers, a huge amount of time and effort goes into creating the right ambience for the venue. How bright should the lighting be? What colours will bring the space to life? What construction materials and fittings should be used?
Given the thought that goes into creating these spaces, it’s somewhat surprising that comparatively little time is given to restaurant acoustics - with the net result that we have now come to expect that shouting to be heard, and enduring the loud shouting of our dining counterparts, is just part of the experience.
The minimalist design trends of modern restaurants mean that a majority of contemporary establishments are designed with hard furnishings and raw construction materials - think steel, concrete, wood, and glass - which means reduced sound absorption, and excessive noise as a result.
All restaurants should have a level of auditory ambience, of which noise is a factor. People would feel self-conscious going to a restaurant that was as quiet as a library. However, by virtue of poor acoustic design, and lack of acoustic treatment, many restaurants’ noise levels (noise being unwanted sound, commonly caused by reverberation or echo within a space) are unpleasant and unchecked, resulting in the discomfort of staff and diners, and to the detriment of the businesses themselves.
There are significant health impacts that can result from prolonged exposure to excessive noise. There are the obvious hearing-related issues, such as hearing loss or tinnitus, but researchers have also linked noise to greater stress levels and increased annoyance, as well as a lowering of immune system function overall, making people more susceptible to illness. Within a restaurant context specifically, excessive noise can actively decrease enjoyment of food, as British researchers discovered.
It’s not uncommon to find restaurants where the sound levels are around 80-90 decibels, and even up to 95 decibels in some cases. To put that in perspective, normal conversation is around 60dB, alarm clocks are about 80dB, and power tools are around 90dB. Considered in those terms, spending a couple of hours eating a delicious meal next to a circular saw seems fairly unappealing.
Another perspective is what is considered ‘safe’ by our regulatory and industry bodies. Prolonged exposure to a sound source above 85 dB is considered ‘harmful’ and can result in permanent hearing damage. Safe Work Australia has used this as a threshold and mandated that 85dB is also the utmost limit for work without hearing protection. This means that noise is an occupational health and safety issue for restaurant owners and staff alike.
Despite an attempt by Restaurant and Catering Australia in 2011 to have that limit raised to 100dB (the level of your favourite song playing at full blast through your headphones) being unsuccessful, little seems to have changed in terms of restaurateurs’ appetites for noise reduction.
Excessive noise is readily treatable. Obviously it should be considered within the design and fitout phase of any new space as much as possible, allowing acoustic treatment to be holistically integrated within the overall design and aesthetic of the space. However for restaurants with existing noise issues, or for restaurateurs who have taken over an established space, retrofitting acoustic treatment solutions is simple and cost effective.
Modern acoustic treatment solutions exist in a range of forms - from common wall and ceiling panels to fins, baffles and dividers. They can blend into the background or become statement pieces in and of themselves, depending on the designer’s desire. They can be printed with photorealistic patterns (like brick, marble, or wood) or images. They are made from polyester fibre containing at least 45% recycled PET plastics, making them lightweight (and easy to install) and sustainable. And they do not emit Volatile Organic Compounds - carbon-based gases that can aggravate respiratory conditions, and cause other health issues.
But most importantly, when installed by experts, they reduce excessive noise in restaurants without compromising on the desired sound-based ambience of the space.
By opting for greater levels of acoustic control, designers, specifiers, and restaurateurs alike can protect the health and wellbeing of their patrons and staff, and create pleasurable auditory experiences that complement - rather than distract from - their delicious food.