Walls Have Ears: Can We Actually Get A Building To Sound Good?
Imagine a traveller checking into a room of a distinguished hotel after a draining transcontinental flight.
Expecting an environment that would facilitate a good rest, as well as the comforts of a plush and sophisticated interior and quality service – instead, he or she hears the guests in the next room and people walking through the corridor, noisily or otherwise.
“Well I never,” might very well be the response. And never indeed would that fancy property receive the patronage again.
Such is a problem that calls for a little help from acoustic architecture, a discipline that looks at “noise” and sound permeability into spaces in a building.
It is probably something that an engineer would be more equipped to handle and advise, rather than an architect. Yet, it remains an aspect to modern architecture that urban designers and planners should take into consideration to cut off sound pollution – as our cities grow increasingly and overbearingly louder.
Recent studies say it’s not just the irritation factor but also health considerations that need to be addressed. High-blood pressure and heart attacks would seem logical, but conditions like Type 2 diabetes are also among the myriad of other illnesses cited.
And this is not a frivolous claim, as the Europe Environment Agency has linked long-term noise exposure to 10,000 premature deaths in the continent, yearly.
In any large city, city dwellers will have to put up with all kinds of loud, disruptive noises and it’s the job of the city planner to reduce and minimize the exposure to its residents. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
But what if it’s too quiet in your corporate offices (no doubt that might be the effect that higher management want in their hallowed halls), which can be quite disconcerting? In such a space, everyone can hear you!
There are now “pink noise” speakers that mute background conversations, something that software company Autodesk utilised in their Waltham offices in Massachusetts.
Also consider the tried-and-tested methods of reducing external noise, some of which were used hundreds if not thousands of years ago. Water features, trees and other vegetation, earth rooftops and multifaceted building facades are some examples.
Of course, depending on the location, the engineer and/or architect and the client might prefer to let some of the sound in (properties along the coast or in a forest, comes to mind). Certainly, one would prefer to hear the sounds of the crashing waves and thrill to the chirping of the birds.
Maria Lorena Lehman, an American multi-award winning author, designer and educator notes that aural characteristics found within architecture often stirs emotions and our sense of hearing helps us bond with people. She adds that designing with sound can bring about as many spatial arrangements as designing with visual clues.
One need only look at such architectural delights such as the La Seine Musicale, National Music Centre or the Hamilton Mausoleum and Tvisongur to appreciate that.
Older architectural wonders also employed sound in some of the designs. For instance, the Goldconda Fort in Hyderabad, India, used techniques where sound from the outside was amplified within to alert soldiers of an impending attack.
If you’ve been in the famous whispering gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral, you would wonder how someone whispering at one end of the space, could still be heard at the opposite end. The answer? Sonic architecture.
Be careful what you whisper when you’re in St. Paul’s Whispering Gallery. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
New York Times notes that an experience in a bistro like Lafayette in Manhattan is not just about the food but also about the ambience which includes the sounds the cutlery, the movements of the guests and the furniture ─ almost like a unique “soundprint” of the establishment. As the article points out, a room sounds very different when a window is open, for sound defines, animates and enlarges the architecture.
Sound and communications expert, Julian Treasure in his TED Talks says that not enough architects utilise their “ears” but design mainly with their eyes. He says they need to look at ambience and interference and it is especially crucial in designing projects dealing with health and education (noting that open-plan classrooms are a very bad idea).
The implication (well Treasure did not imply, but heavily stressed) is that it is mandatory for architects, engineers, planners and interior designers to include sound engineers or any specialised sound professional in their projects.
Yet how many do so? He concludes that it is time to start “designing for our ears”.
Begin At Home
That said, dial down all of the above and visualise instead your home or a specific room or space within that abode.
Just imagine this. You have invested in a set of home theatre equipment. You’re looking forward to an amazing auditory and sensorial experience, but despite the quality speakers, amplifiers and woofers you just purchased, you get muffled sounds and reverb that no amount of fiddling with the settings help eliminate.
That’s because you’ve forgotten another important element, the acoustic properties of the room or space itself.
The trick is to create a room that is neither too absorbent or too reflective or diffusive (sound-wise). An empty room with hardwood floors and a bare drywall sets off too many echoes.
Having it carpeted and filled with plush furniture, will help cut off a lot of the sounds. To put it in basic terms, smooth surfaces are more reflective than rough ones
One then needs to meet in the middle. A good design will look first at what is known as first order reflections, which are locations where sound from the speakers reflect off to your ears. So, structures like the floor, the wall and the ceiling that are midway between the listener and the speaker.
While, an audiophile would like to have the best possible solution for their home theatre space, considerations have also to be made to ensure that the sounds are not also audible outside of the room. Other occupants of the house or even the home-owner themselves would want quiet times in the rest of the home.
Try not to mount equipment directly against the walls unless there is sufficient sound-proofing and one that does not interfere with the auditory experience within the room itself. There’s no one solution for everything as each space is unique as is the components within.
If a professional consultant is not available, there are a lot of guides available online. Also, don’t be afraid to sound off your ideas or concerns with audiophile forums out there.
For more articles on the power of sound in architecture, read:
- Exploring The Significance Of Sonic Architecture
- An Ode to the Architecture of Music
- Fashion Boutiques That Take Architecture To The Next Level
- 5 Of Ginza’s Most Compelling Architecture
- 5 of Antoni Gaudí’s Most Famous Works
- Buildings with Great Acoustics
Cover image: Sound Of Life
Writer | S. S. Yoga
Yoga is a freelance editor/writer/media consultant who does not like to be limited in his interests and hence occasionally gets TMI-infections. That does not stop him, though, from exploring many rabbit holes all over the world. He loves the challenge of organising data and experiences.