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MACH measuring system: ’Sometimes, you need the peace and space to have a conversation without eavesdropping’ (4/50)

Measuring Acoustics for Comfort & Health, or MACH for short, is a measuring system that can monitor noise levels on an office floor for a longer period during office hours. This makes it an ideal measurement system for organisations that want to monitor the impact of noise on productivity, comfort and health in the office. A conversation with Tom Bouwhuis, advisor at M+P, about acoustic privacy, behaviour in relation to noise levels and the insights that MACH offers for this.

You can think of all kinds of conversation situations in the office where you want privacy. This can be a private conversation or a conversation with your manager. But you may also be having a conversation with a client in which you exchange sensitive information. ‘That’s when you need the peace and space to have a conversation without eavesdropping,’ Tom says. ‘We call that “acoustic privacy”. But how do you measure something like that? The answer: with MACH.’

Measuring during office hours
MACH is a measurement system developed by M+P particularly for the existing noise situation in offices. ‘Many office measurements focus on the built environment,’ Tom says. ‘It concerns material selection, layout and furnishing. For example, is there sufficient separation between workspaces? But there’s one important element that is overlooked during such measurements: the people who use the office. After all, the measuring is done when the office workers and their guests have gone home. Not in the case of MACH, which measures during office hours. MACH enables you to map out how behaviour manifests itself in noise levels and - just as important - in noise experience. In other words, MACH indicates how lively a noise environment is. MACH uses classifications such as “quiet”, “calm”, “lively” or “turbulent”. Turbulent is never good, but lively is perfect for an environment where people consult each other a lot. One example is an architectural firm where a team is working on a design together. Programmers who spend most of their day working on their own computer, on the other hand, benefit more from a quiet or calm working environment. You can only measure something like this if the office is used as intended. And that is precisely the added value of MACH.’

Behavioural patterns
A daytime measurement should not be a snapshot. Measurements must be taken continuously for a longer period of time. Even a whole day is not enough. After all, not one day is the same; they differ in terms of activities and occupancy. Also, some weeks are livelier than others. That is why MACH measures the noise situation for several weeks in a row. ‘This allows us to determine a baseline,’ Tom explains. ‘We discover certain patterns. For example, we did a measurement at a client with a shift rota. The measurement showed that the shift changes caused extra turbulence on the work floor. Three times a day - because there are three shift changes - it got extra noisy half an hour before and half an hour after the new shift started. We noticed different behaviour and that was expressed in a different noise level.’

New measuring system
The development of MACH started with the need to be able to monitor the noise situation for a longer period of time when people are working. Tom: ‘Initially we placed our sound level meters in the office. But that equipment is expensive and we can’t do without it for that long. That’s why we’ve developed a new measuring system ourselves with cheaper sensors and a smarter data processing unit. For example, MACH can send a status directly to our web portal.  This way, we get real-time scores of the activity levels at that moment. To add this functionality, we sat next to the meters for a while and compared our own scores - what is our noise experience? - with the output of the measuring system on different parameters. We then also asked other experts and laymen to listen to noise fragments. This enables us to “feed” MACH and we now receive scores that are understandable for everyone. This is not so much about the noise level, but about the subjective value that people on the office floor attach to it. It simply fits better with mapping behaviour.’

From material and furnishing to awareness
After a couple of weeks of monitoring and analysis, we issue a recommendation. ‘MACH gives us insight into behavioural patterns and the associated noise levels. We then combine that with architectural measurements. If this shows that the noise continues to reverberate in the room for longer and the MACH measurements show that the noise level is also quite high there, our advice may be to add more absorption material in this room. If the noise levels are low, extra absorption material will increase audibility too much, and you don’t want that either. People would then be able to listen in on colleagues from a distance of 30 metres… I would recommend increasing acoustic privacy by placing privacy panels.’ In addition to advice on the materials to be used or the furnishing, M+P also advises on the behaviour of the people who use the office. ‘It’s about awareness: what’s possible and what is not possible in this specific space with a view to productivity, comfort, health and acoustic privacy? That’s what I like about MACH: you can use factual information to point out the impact of their behaviour on the noise levels.’