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Engineers turn to 'soft offices'

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The Soffice project funded by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is exploring how to use new materials and methods to make offices "softer".

It will assess whether it is feasible to incorporate advanced composite materials into furniture design.

UK workers face noise levels that are 50% over the recommended levels.

Mobile phones, desk phones, printers, voice recognition software, and photocopiers, all combine to produce a cacophony of noise which can measure an average of 75dB (A).

"A" is the average depending on the sound source and what is in the way.

That compares to the rustle of a leaf, which makes around 10dB(A), normal conversation which clocks up 60dB(A), busy street noise at 70dB(A), and a chainsaw at 110dB(A).

The World Health Organisation sets noise levels at 55dB for places like offices.

Too much noise can lead to increased stress levels, and a loss of productivity, according to Fira (Furniture Industry Research Association), which is leading the nine-month project.

But Soffice is not about padding walls and putting "silence please" signs on office walls.

"None of the materials we are using have been used in furniture manufacturing before," Sue Calver, FIRA project leader, told the BBC News website.

Making office furniture out of sound-absorbing material, soft drawer mechanisms, and cladding screens made from acoustic materials could help.

Technological advances have meant that printers, photocopiers and computer noise emission have been lowered.

Headsets instead of clattering phone handsets, phones with individual volume controls, and laser printers have all helped, leaving advances in quieter furniture behind.

They need to create and test acoustically absorbing surfaces as well as cabinet sides and all the frontals for doors and drawers.

Anything is a possibility at this stage of the feasibility study, said Mr Richardson, but how it will shape offices of the future will be down to cost and viability.

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