Thinking Space

Photo of office


As a kid I enjoyed reading Mark Twain’s ‘Tom Sawyer,’ but even then felt a certain revulsion at some of his antics. I was never big into swinging cats.

I get great satisfaction from doing things well, sometimes even too well, hyper-well, better-than-necessary. This has to be one of my raisons d’être. Because of that I can also feel frustrated if circumstances prevent me from doing my job well. To a certain extent I have adapted to the exigencies of reality; I realise I have an inclination towards certain types of work and a disinterest in certain other types: I call on willpower. In relation to things that interest me I like bringing together diverse threads and teasing out linkages in a painstaking (but it is not pain) way. I came across an article recently that suggested confined spaces favoured concentration on detail. Mind you, I love open spaces. Perhaps the open spaces provide the inspiration and confined spaces allow for ideas to be refined and distilled.

I moved into a new office yesterday and so, naturally, I have been thinking about the type of workspace I would ideally like. People are not all the same and it is not good to put them into boxes, metaphorically. There is no single answer to the question of the ideal workspace for, for instance, an academic in the field of Mechanical Engineering who is involved in third and fourth level engineering education and is engaged in research.

Some of the practicalities are: being close to lecture rooms, laboratories and the library, being accessible to students and colleagues and being close to the areas through which many people transit and where it is possible to bump into people or interact with them.

There is a need for a place to hang up one’s waterproof clothing, this being Ireland where it sometimes rains. The various accoutrements don’t stop there either. I didn’t think I was a hoarder, but was a little shocked yesterday when I found I had hived away a fair collection of sparkling clean, empty plastic water bottles. It is shocking too that for the drinking of modest quantities of water these precision objects had to be created—creating employment and work for machinery and need for ‘channels’ of distribution. Do you see what I mean about linking diverse things together in my head?

If the ceiling is no lower than the height I can touch, that is fine. Having natural light through a window is a blessing. My new office is more than adequate and is fully in keeping with my recent decrease in status: from being a full-time administrator who did research as a hobby to being in the highest career-grade in my institute as a full-time academic. This office is in a very central location and I am delighted with that. In this institute it is rare for academics to have single-occupancy offices. While I am far from being extrovert, I need contact with others. I need to see them, hear them and interact with them, but I find that for concentrated work I really appreciate a single-occupancy office. Likewise, I appreciate my own office if I am having a one-to-one meeting or am talking to someone over the phone.

As I moved into my new office I was deeply disappointed for one single reason. There is a continuous low-pitched noise coming from a duct and fan (the duct is within the suspended ceiling of the office). The sound measures about 35 level-equalised decibels (A-weighted), which is not loud by noise standards. The spectrum seems to be broad and level, especially at the lower frequencies right down to 16 hertz. I experience the sound as a rumbling that varies slightly in intensity and pitch, much like the wind, but deeper—there is maybe a hint of the Australian didgeridoo to it, but more tummy-rumbling and not pleasant. The buildings department had taken steps to abate the noise and my feeling of deep disappointment yesterday was because I felt the abatement had not been enough for my needs. It has been suggested to me that this level of background noise is not unreasonable, but a formal assessment will be carried out. I have flagged my concerns on health and safety grounds.

It is too soon to say how this situation will be resolved. The noise is at a low level and is well below the levels of intermittent ambient background noise, such as students in the corridor outside or my laser printer when it is operating. As it is, I have some tinnitus in my left ear that I successfully ignore most of the time, but, as I work here at my desk, I find the rumble-rumble to be rather too much for comfort. I intend to do some research myself to see if there might yet be a technical solution that has not been tried. I like this office and, apart from the duct noise, I am very unlikely to get a better one.

My own view is that I am not averse to normal background noise—but maybe I’m just spoilt, as I have an excellent environment at home where I enjoy working. Would you believe that I wrote this, in the rumbling noise, right through lunchtime without realising it? It is now 2:20 p.m.!