Going out with friends for drinks and/or dinner should be a fun, relaxing experience with good conversation. Unfortunately, many restaurants and bars have become so noisy, it’s nearly impossible to hear your tablemates. According to a recent Zagat survey, the No. 1 complaint from diners is the noise level, followed by service, crowds, price and parking. And forget about those of us who spend an hour or two there straining our necks to listen and raising our voices to be heard; think of the people who work there for eight or more hours a shift. It’s not only bad business, it’s bad for your health and can cause hearing loss over time. Although this isn’t a new issue, it seems be more prevalent than ever, and tackling it up front in the design of the space is the best defense.
Case in point: Grizform Design recently completed the design of the King Fish Tide & Shell restaurant (formerly Three Degrees, which closed late last year) at the Kimpton Riverplace Hotel, located near the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. The design of the interiors connects with the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, integrating white oak plank flooring, a granite bar, a fireplace clad in tile, and a combination of banquette, high-top and communal tables. While those nods to the rugged local landscape might speak volumes about being local, all these hard surfaces can add to the decibel level. The design team found a solution early on to dampen the noise by specifying modular, sound absorbent tiles in the bulkhead above the bar. “The panels, with various widths and depths allowed us to create the texture that the restaurant needed while producing a functional sound-deadening wall,” says Griz Dwight, Grizform Design’s principal and owner. “We are always on the lookout for ways to work soft materials into our spaces without sacrificing the project’s aesthetic.”
Here we ask him about the challenges of hitting the right note with aesthetics and sound in large public spaces.
How do you incorporate considerations about noise/sound in your design planning?
GD: We start with the concept, design and look of the space to be sure that all of these factors are in line with our client’s goals. Then we layer in the considerations for the sound. This needs to happen fairly early in the process but not so early that we end up creating a padded box. We have designed dozens of restaurants and bars over the past decade and noise is one of those problems that is always there. One the one hand, a crowd of people enjoying themselves and making noise in a restaurant is a good problem to have; people having fun tend to come back again. But on the other hand, it is one of those problems that can be solved with some initial thought. Designers need to consider the hardness and density of the products that they specify and where they are located in the project. It’s OK to specify hard products, but designing for acoustics requires incorporating softer, sound absorbing surfaces to limit sound reflection and soak up noises before they get too loud.
How do you convince clients to spend money on materials that will dampen the noise vs. spending it all on FF&E?
GD: We try not to look at it as an either/or because it really needs to be a both/and. Controlling sound levels is a must. We try to make the argument that installing sound dampening materials gets a direct return on investment. The number one complaint in most restaurants is the noise level and if a place is too loud, guests will not return.
Do you see a trend toward more enclosed spaces within hospitality design to keep the experiences more intimate for guests?
GD: We see hotels and restaurants needing a mix of spaces—big, open floor plans and smaller, closed off areas—and I don’t think that only having one or the other is the solution. Some people like the see-and-be-seen vibe of an open space while others want more intimate locations. The best solutions are a mix of both open and intimate spaces.
Besides wall panels, what other materials would you recommend when working with a large space to minimize sound while maximizing impact?
GD: There are so many great products on the market these days that help with sound. These range from the subtle use of acoustic-coat paint to the dramatic use of hand stitched felt art panels to padding under floor surfaces. The only limit is your imagination.
Popular places will always be bustling and noisy, but by incorporating softer elements into the design of the space, they don’t have to be painfully loud. Take a cue from Griz, and tackle sound issues at the front-end of your projects. Your clients will thank you.