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Ask the Experts: David Shea Talks Noise Abatement



The ceilings at Cov in Edina benefited from acoustic tiles that are masked by the rugged white beams.

Sometimes noise levels add to the ambiance of a busy bar scene, but a four-top wants to be able to converse once they move to the dining room. So one noise-abatement plan doesn’t fit all areas of a restaurant.

As restaurant design trends away from “soft” furnishings that absorb noise in favor of tile floors, slate countertops and high-ceilings, what are some ways restaurants can decrease the noise levels?

We asked David Shea of Shea, the design firm behind some of the most popular restaurants in the Twin Cities, to share some of his  tips for clients. 

Shea: First, noise is critical to address in the very beginning of the concept design process. It needs to be built into the foundation of what the restaurant wants to be, not solved after the fact, depending on what that restaurant’s brand identity will be and what an operator wants consumers to expect. The guests in a brewpub will both expect and accept a much higher decibel level than what those will expect in an upscale-casual dining environment.

FSN: Are there certain design elements that work well with acoustics? (More pillows on seats, rugs, etc.)

Shea: From a noise-level standpoint, there are some spaces that are described as “highly active.” These have hard floors and modern, clean-line furnishings. In spaces like these, the key is to focus on the ceiling and the walls, where you can use the many acoustic products that have been developed to solve noise issues before they happen.

One product Shea mentioned is K13, a spray made from cellulose fibers which have been chemically treated, and that comes in a several different colors. The 2-by-2-inch acoustical ceiling tiles, which look more like noise abatement than stylish, now come in 4-by-4-inch and 6-by-6-inch sizes “so it doesn’t look acoustical,” Shea says. For most high ceilings, the acoustical materials aren’t noticeable to the guests, but another trick to not only hide them but provide more silencers is to add design pieces that can break up the sound, such as the bamboo buoys Shea used at Lucky Cricket in the West End. Heavy drapes and padded seats are also solutions, although not for the restaurateur set on clean lines. 

 FSN: What’s a decimal level that is bearable for busy restaurant?

Shea: It depends. I have a DB meter on my phone, and an active, vibrant restaurant should be under 70 DB. Some bars and brewhouses are designed to withstand levels above that, but it makes it difficult to carry on a conversation at a four-top.

FSN: There are certain places where noise adds to the ambiance. When is it a good thing and when is it a deal breaker? (Does noise chase away older people, while too quiet means it’s boring to younger crowds?)

Shea: Restaurants are the new social gathering places—so that means people interact on many levels, not only guests interacting with each other, but also integrating open kitchens, community tables and bars as part of the experience. That inevitably raises the ambient noise level, but it’s possible to take into consideration areas within the design that allow for quieter zones to appeal to guests who are looking for something more intimate.

And, yes, that means hiring an architect/designer in the early stages. “Put some in and then come back and fine tune it,” he says about acoustical materials. “Retrofits are harder.” 

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