Lead acoustician of Australian engineering firm TTM, Keith Hewett, talks about the acoustic pitfalls of contemporary design and the simple steps every architect and developer can take to create acoustic harmony, without compromising the elegance of modern design.
The allure of modern architecture’s clean lines and hard surfaces has captured the masses. But some designs can hide a complexity of issues for the acoustics of a building, which can lead to costly and unattractive solutions.
So what do good building acoustics look like? Nothing like modern architecture, says Keith: “There’s a natural tension between modern architecture and acoustics. Contemporary design is often dominated by glass and cement. Whilst these materials look striking, they do nothing to soften the sound. Instead, they reflect sound and create a build up of noise in the space.”
Keith suggests angles are equally important. “Sharp, angular lines are another dramatic design element that cause sound to dart off the surface in the mirrored direction – much like a cue ball effect. Similarly, concaved surfaces reflect sound at an angle that creates concentrated pockets of noise.”
More often than not, acoustic design is considered as an after thought, once the building is complete and functional. “It’s not impossible to solve noise issues retrospectively, but your options become more limited and expensive, and it can impact on the integrity of the original design.”
“I recently encountered a new office fit out where the upper levels of office space opened up to an atrium over the main reception. Though it created a grand, welcoming entrance and increased the natural light throughout the building, it also carried excessive noise into the upper office floors. Building occupants were concerned by the level of noise and disruption to their work environment. If an acoustician had been involved during the design phase, these issues could have been overcome – easily and economically.”
So how do architects and developers ensure their design will sound as good as it looks? Keith says it’s all about planning: “Acoustics need to match the architectural function and aesthetic value of the project. Some sounds you want to travel, others you don’t.”
“Acousticians can work hand in hand with architects to achieve the right outcome for the space. It isn’t always about reducing noise, but rather, creating the right sound for the space, which will naturally be very different for a library, house, office or restaurant.”
There’s an ever-growing number of quality acoustic products on the market that can be incorporated in the design process to optimise the use of sound within that space. A good acoustician can advise how to incorporate these into the design to control the way sound behaves and compliment the overall aesthetic and function.
“There’s a real hesitation in the industry to prioritise spend on acoustics, but it doesn't always have to be a significant investment. Some of the best solutions I’ve implemented have been inspired by small budgets.”
Keith says the key to good acoustic design is to consider it early in the design process. “With good planning, anything is possible.”