Why acoustics are underrated.
Can’t hear yourself think?
When you enter a space, sound can have an impact on the feel of the place. Often unconsciously.
Imagine when you’re on holiday somewhere new and are trying to decide on a café or bar to spend an evening.
It’s generally visual cues and possibly a tempting menu that will get you to open the door.
What then happens is that your other senses get involved (non-verbal cues). What does it sound like, smell like? You decide where to sit – a cosy less well-lit corner perhaps.
But, once seated, something’s making you uncomfortable.
Maybe the music’s too loud or quiet, there’s an annoying background noise from the air conditioning unit or the speaker is right over your table.
It just doesn’t feel right. To spend any length of time there would irritate you and spoil the lovely evening you’d planned.
So you apologise and hot foot it down to that little trattoria down the street you’d seen earlier…
So what are the issues?
Design for function
It’s important to consider how you want to use a space before deciding on how to manage acoustics.
The correct balance of reverberation and absorption needs to be achieved depending on the required outcome.
A lecture hall or theatre, for example, needs to allow an audience to clearly hear what’s going on at the front.
Different material choices from acoustic panelling to paint finish to seating can be configured to get the best result.
Open plan living
An open-plan office or living area allows people to complete different types of tasks, possibly in different areas concurrently.
Have you ever tried to work in an open plan space while someone’s watching TV or talking loudly on the phone?
It’s so hard to concentrate.
In an ideal world, you’d aim to use the space flexibly at different times of the day by different people or different uses, but we’ve all just had to cope over the last few years.
Material choices are also key but bear in mind that noise will increase with the volume of space.
Sounds reflect from hard surfaces, bouncing noises around creating a distraction which in some cases can be quite uncomfortable.
Even talking to someone across a table can be difficult in a space containing all hard surfaces.
Imagine a restaurant with hard floors, metal tables and chairs.
Each scrape of a chair leg, each time metal cutlery connects with a plate and each time a glass is placed back on the table creates a sharp noise.
This can be quite uncomfortable for anyone, let alone if you have any sensitivity.
Introducing soft furnishings can help to acoustically soften a space, dampening the reverberation.
Acoustic insulation & soundproofing materials can also be used.
City living can result in noise pollution which deters you from opening windows.
This creates a knock-on effect where air conditioning is used instead to ventilate and cool a building.
This impacts you from a health and financial perspective as well as the environment.
It’s worth bearing in mind that even in the heart of the city, the air quality inside your building will be significantly more polluted than anything from the street outside.
The background whir of an air conditioning unit can range from mildly annoying to downright irritating.
Although necessary in some countries and climates, thought should be given to when they are used, and the output noise levels involved.
If possible, locate them away from anywhere you would sit for any length of time.
Oh, and while you’re at it, do make sure you check and change the filter when recommended to avoid any nasties polluting your space.
This also links to Energy consumption, but ideally, aim for as high a spec as possible.
Improvements in energy-saving technology meant most new UK kitchen appliances were given top energy ratings (up to A+++).
Changes in 2021 now assess energy ratings and eco-friendly credentials to show a wider environmental impact.
The range is now from A-G and the new category-specific labels all specify ratings for Airborne Acoustic noise emissions (db(A) and noise emission class.
For washing machines, they also show a spin-drying efficiency class as well as a db(A) for spinning on an eco 40-60 programme.
This allows you to choose energy-efficient and quiet appliances – particularly useful for ever-popular open-plan kitchen/diners.
Music is so subjective, so personal and so emotive.
I can always take myself back to past events when listening to certain tracks or albums.
When I first heard it maybe, who I was with, or a significant time of my life when I over-devoured it.
Listening to The Smiths always takes me back to A-Level revision, for example.
The years fade away and I feel the emotions of the time – excitement for the future – a life of possibilities before me…
Listening to familiar music has been found to reduce stress.
Have you noticed there are different tasks which become much easier to focus on when listening to music you like?
For me, creating moodboards or interior spatial design. This is when our auto-pilot brain kicks in.
We can be creative and relax into the task in hand.
For other tasks, requiring focus and concentration, the brain can’t cope quite so well with the distraction. For example learning new information or parking the car.
A low level of calming music can also be used to offset any external background noise.
Maybe something to try next time your neighbours are throwing a party?
Hearing impairment & Tinnitus
As we get older our hearing becomes less sensitive and we lose frequencies, making it harder to interpret sounds.
For example, conversation can be hard in an environment such as a cafe where sound levels are high, as you struggle to differentiate between speech and background noise.
When you suffer from tinnitus, often a layer of background noise can in fact be helpful to drown out the constant ringing.
There are many apps that can also provide sounds to sleep to, which can alleviate this.
Visit www.tinnitus.org.uk for more coping strategies.
Autism & other neuro-diversities
Often with Autism, you may be either over or under-sensitive to sound.
People suffering from under-sensitivity may only hear sounds in one ear. They may prefer crowded or noisy spaces although certain sounds may not be acknowledged at all.
In contrast, over-sensitive people may experience sounds more intensely than other people.
They might hear distant conversations although sounds can become confused as everything becomes magnified.
They can also find it hard to distinguish between sounds.
This can create issues with concentration when trying to blank out background noise for example.
Visit www.autism.org.uk for more information and coping strategies.
One of the aspects we consider in holistic design is ambient noise.
When you sit quietly in a space, how does the noise makes you feel?
We take this in subconsciously but how often do we actually sit and listen? It’s really worth embracing from a mindfulness perspective.
There’s a reason that we go to the seaside or countryside to convalesce, but sometimes that low-level buzz that starts as the city wakes can be quite familiar and exciting.
It’s funny what you notice and maybe missed in lockdown.
What do you hear when you really listen?
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