By Jo Twist
BBC News science and technology reporter
Offices of the future could become havens of peace and tranquillity instead of hotbeds of slamming drawers and rattling filing cabinets.
Acoustic panelling in cinemas could be used to build cabinets
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 significantly over 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 a weighted measurement of sound pressure level as perceived by the human ear.
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 Organization sets noise levels at 55dB for places like offices.
'Playground for noise'
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.
Indeed, she says, she is not aware of any other major project of this kind, apart from academic research projects, which have addressed office furniture in this way.
Although many offices concentrate on aesthetics and hi-tech equipment, the actual construction of acoustic office furniture on a large scale - from drawers to filing cabinets - has been largely neglected.
"We often see people spend money in enhancing the acoustics of a room in the walls and ceiling.
"But often walls are covered with filing cabinets, so if we can make the cabinets out of acoustically absorbing materials, that should reduce the noise in a room."
There are several different types of materials being considered, but the most promising - acoustic material - is already used in cinemas and hotels to absorb unwanted sound.
Eomac, one of the partners, is well-versed in producing acoustically absorbing materials for cinemas, studios and hotels.
Essentially, to make material absorbent, Eomac cut 15mm tubes cut through planks of chipboard.
These are pulled out of the sheets of wood, and grooves are cut along the external side of the material, where the cylindrical holes are positioned, internally.
The more grooves and holes, the more sound-absorbing the material is. The project will also consider introducing closing and shutting mechanisms that are silent, often used in kitchen cabinets.
"Modern technology is part of the problem," explained Ms Calver. "But I think most problems are generated by people and phone conversations."
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.
"There is no doubt that if you take average offices, they have lots of hard straight surfaces which are terrible for noise," Mark Richardson, from furniture fittings maker Blum, explained.
"There are long runs of cabinets, thin carpeting and solid walls and ceilings, all hard straight surfaces.
"It is a playground for noise. It never dissipates and is easily transmitted."
Rounding the edges
The Soffice project will involve building some prototypes out of new materials to test at Southampton University.
The partners need to create and test acoustically absorbing surfaces as well as cabinet sides and all the frontals for doors and drawers.
Offices may look good, but are a "playground for noise"
"The testing room is about five metres square," explained Mr Richardson. "What will go in there will be a typical layout for office of that size.
"There is a noise emission speaker in there, and the room is designed so that none of the walls, ceiling or floor are parallel to each other so that all the noise bounces around the room.
"It dissipates as slowly as it can as it bounces round the room; so basically you get the worst-case scenario in terms of noise from all different directions," he said.
Anything was 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.