Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) has developed two free software tools to help designers, managers, and planners configure open-plan office environments.
Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) has developed two free software tools to help designers, managers, and planners configure open-plan office environments. The user simply describes the workstation and its surroundings, and the software provides feedback on both the physical performance of the space and (in one of the tools) its potential effects on occupant satisfaction. This allows the user to explore options to maximize speech privacy, for example, or to meet a given desktop illuminance while minimizing glare. If one wishes to increase illuminance, which is the most effective strategy: changing the luminaire, making cubicles bigger, lowering panels, or increasing the panel reflectance? Which is least detrimental to speech privacy? The software can help answer questions such as these.
Tools Based on Research
The software tools embody the results of workplace research conducted at NRC. In the Spring 2004 issue of Research Design Connections, a front-page article (“Workplace Environments Being Decoded”) discussed a project called Cost-effective Open-Plan Environments (COPE). COPE objectively examined the effect of office design choices on the workplace environment, and the effect of that environment on occupant satisfaction, using literature reviews, studies in office laboratories, computer simulations, and a large field study.
The first software tool coming out of this research, COPE-ODE (Office Design Evaluator) is on-line software that takes a broad view of the physical environment in an open-plan office, potential occupant satisfaction issues, and costs. The second tool, COPE-Calc, is downloadable software that allows a more detailed look at acoustical design for cubicles. Both tools are available from the COPE project web-site: http://irc.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/ie/cope/.
COPE-ODE for Physical Design
The interface for this software allows the user to describe various aspects of the physical design of the cubicle workstation itself, and the office environment around it, as shown in Figure 1.
Clicking on the “Cost Estimate” button on the left side of the interface brings up a spreadsheet where the user can enter relevant first-time and recurring costs associated with the design. After the design is specified, the software calculates some physical environment indicators, such as Speech Intelligibility Index (SII) between adjacent cubicles, desktop illuminance, and a categorization of reflected glare on a computer screen, as shown in Figure 2(a).
Figure 2(a) also shows a visualization of the glare and lighting design to the right. Note that next to the numerical performance indicators there is also an indicator bar showing how the design performs relative to performance criteria that can be input from design guidelines or recommended practices. As shown in Figure 2(b), a different tab on the output section carries information on occupant satisfaction. Here the software highlights aspects of the design that might negatively (X) or positively (tick) affect occupant satisfaction.
The example shown in Figures 1 and 2 does not perform particularly well—i.e., speech intelligibility and glare are both higher than desirable, and there are four negative satisfaction indicators. How might one solve these problems? First, one could retrofit with a luminaire with a low-glare parabolic louver and an electronic ballast. Getting SII down to an acceptable level (ideally below 0.2) requires a number of measures. Installing a sound-masking system, high-absorption ceiling tile and furniture panels, and raising the furniture panel height to 64 inches will achieve this, though note that the latter measure will also lower desktop illuminance. The result of this set of design changes is compared to the original design in a summary window shown in Figure 3.
Note that these design changes would all likely have costs associated with them that should be reflected in the associated costing spreadsheet. One of the benefits of the tool is that it shows the material benefits of that extra investment, and presents options for savings elsewhere. For example, specifying smaller cubicles might save enough in real estate costs to cover all or part of the investment. However, the tool will also show that making cubicles smaller will increase SII and lower desktop illuminance and, if cubicles are too small, they can engender negative sensations of crowding.
For more information on COPE-ODE, consult the on-line help files and the “Quick Start Guide” on the web site.
COPE-Calc for Acoustic Design
In COPE-Calc the user inputs a similar set of office design parameters as in COPE-ODE—but only those concerned with acoustic performance. Whereas COPE-ODE is limited to a relatively small number of standard materials and noise profiles, COPE-Calc has a much bigger database, and allows users to add their own materials and profiles. The software calculates SII based on a complex set of equations that describe all sound paths between two cubicles. COPE-Calc has two additional and useful features. A “Give Me Advice” button analyzes the current design and reports back a list of design changes that would have the biggest effect in reducing SII. A “Listen” button allows the user to hear what a person talking on the telephone in a next-door cubicle would sound like given the current office design. Hearing the relative difference between two designs is sometimes a more effective performance comparison than simply knowing the SII number.
COPE-Calc comes with complete on-line help and a “Quick Start Wizard.”
Dr. Guy Newsham has more than 15 years’ experience researching indoor environments, and has published more than 100 articles on his work. He heads the Lighting Research Group at the Institute for Research in Construction, National Research Council Canada, and also managed COPE (Cost-effective Open-Plan Environments), a multi-disciplinary investigation of cubicle environments. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org