Design briefs hardly ever include a description of the acoustic experience that should be achieved. Yet acoustics are a vital and defining characteristic that shapes the quality and character of environments and our responses to them. So surely we should be talking about how we want our buildings and public spaces to sound from the very outset of our projects.
Controlling noise, or unwanted sound, is part of the issue. Whether it’s caused by traffic on a nearby road or a building’s own mechanical systems, noise is disturbing and even harmful to us. Beyond hearing loss, which is one consequence of spending time in a noisy environment, noise impairs our ability to concentrate, to understand, and to rest.
The construction world is increasingly aware that unwanted sound should be controlled to create environments that are conducive to their primary purpose – whether they’re hospitals, hotels, offices, homes or other buildings. In the performing arts, however, clients understand that they need acoustic designers to go beyond noise control to design an acoustic experience.
But shouldn’t we be doing this in other environments too? Take restaurants as a simple example. Acoustics should be part of the discussion right at the outset. What is the nature of the space, the ambience, the character of the restaurant? Is it intended to be high energy? Intimate? Elegant? Cool and relaxed? These questions are primarily taken to be aesthetic design goals … and they shouldn’t be.
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In New York, my colleagues used the SoundLab to explore the acoustic experience of walking from the street into the lobby of a building, then into a performance venue and into a museum. They used this as a tool to discuss whether the choices being made about background noise were appropriate; groundbreaking stuff, in my view. We should be doing this sort of work on every project, carrying the discussion beyond background noise to designing the acoustic nature of the space.
Whether we’re designing urban parks, hospitals, restaurants or hotel lobbies, we should be considering from the outset how we can shape the acoustical experience. We should be using acoustics in tandem with the spatial geometries, textures, light and colours to create spaces that elicit an emotional or even physical response. Sound can make spaces where people want to linger, spaces that induce people to move through quickly, spaces with specific personality, and spaces that provoke a multitude of other responses.
Whatever environment you want to achieve, it comes down to a holistic thought process. As designers we must advocate more thought (and therefore time) being devoted to this sort of acoustic curation.
The nature of our acoustic world should be the result of conscious design choices everywhere in our built environment, and not an unintended consequence of aesthetic choices.
This feature originally appeared in Arup and Tateo Nakajima.