Tag Archive: architects

Buildings are noisy because architects don’t study sound

Photo credit: Graeme Maclean licensed under CC BY 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Most of us assume when we walk into a very noisy building that it must be ok, because if it weren’t, wouldn’t somebody have thought of a solution to the problem? But it’s a simple fact that planners and architects spend little to no time thinking about noise and sound, unless they are designing a theater or performance space.

Architects don’t inhabit the spaces they design. And they can’t show clients pictures of what their projects will sound like, unless they spend some money on modeling sound conditions.

This fairly sparse article at least touches on this vast area of ignorance about sound among architects, planners, and grad school faculty.

The foundations of acoustical science are well over a century old and well respected, but they are embedded in physics, not art and architecture. Not every architect and planner is ignorant of the subject—there are some exceptions–but the plain fact is architects do not know how to design for good sound quality. They rely on specialists from physics, and those people cost money. As a result, noise is typically not recognized as a problem until after a building has been built and the planners, architects, designers, and contractors have all gone home and deposited their checks.  And then it is often too late.

So next time you’re in a nicely designed space that you find is too noisy, remember that it’s very likely no one thought about the soundscape until it was too late and hoped you wouldn’t notice. Be sure to tell them that you do.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Architecture and sound

In Dear Architects: Sound Matters, Michael Kimmelman has written a fascinating article on sound as a component of architecture.  The article uses multimedia elements that allow the reader to hear the images, which makes the piece all the more powerful.  Kimmelman believes that sound is an element that adds texture to a space, for example the ambient noise in Grand Central which “rises upward and outward, toward the hall’s immense ceiling, embodying the impression of the terminal as a soaring gateway to a great metropolis, promising adventure.”   He also acknowledges how noisy cities have become, noting that:

During the Middle Ages, smell was the unspoken plague of cities. Today it is sound. Streets, public spaces, bars, offices, even apartments and private houses can be painfully noisy, grim and enervating.

It is the failure to consider sound when designing spaces, particularly public spaces, that allows sound to become overwhelming, to become noise.  This failure of design can be heard in almost every new “it” restaurant (and the wannabes) where the only consideration appears to be the space’s visual impact.  This is disconcerting because “[a]coustics can act in deep, visceral ways, not unlike music (think of the sound of an empty house).”   And there is no respite from the sounds of the city when your attempt to escape the crowded and noisy streets leads you to a crowded and noisy restaurant, bar, or enclosed public space.

One hopes that architects and designers consider how the design of a space and the materials used allow the people who will use the space to appreciate the sound of their footsteps as they cross the floor or, as Kimmelman observed, the reassuring “heavy clunk” of a solid wood door over a hollow one.  He adds that “we don’t talk nearly enough about how sound in these buildings, and in all the other spaces we design, make us feel.”  No argument here.  It is the failure to consider the affect of competing, discordant, and uncomfortably loud sounds that has made city living more difficult over the last few decades.  So let’s hope that architects and designers consider how unnerving and uncomfortable spaces become when they are designed only for their visual impact and without a thought towards how they sound.

Thanks to Daniel Fink, M.D., a noise pollution activist in the Los Angeles area, for the link.  Dr. Fink serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association.