Acoustically attuned architecture

by Ofentse Sefolo
Acoustically attuned architecture

One of the most significant realisations to emerge from the pandemic is the importance of acoustics.

Workplaces have been transformed into hybrid modality platforms with face-to-face and remote communication: Employees engage in live-stream video conversations from all points in the work environment.

Today’s video calls are more likely to be lengthy group meetings, with extended periods of focused attention and less tolerance for distraction. Some of these exchanges can occur in acoustically isolated conference rooms, but more will take place in noisy open office environments, increasing the demand for acoustic control beyond what noise-cancelling headphones and headset microphones can provide.

Rather than treating acoustics as an afterthought by deploying mass-produced, sound-absorbing products, architects and designers need to approach sound control as a multidimensional, space-shaping opportunity.

A number of companies have spent significant time in finding viable solutions to this modern-day challenge. We look at some of the most innovative solutions currently in development.

The Sound Pavilion
The Sound Pavilion was inspired by the sculptural approach to acoustics and has created a freestanding inhabitable environment. Firm principal Rachel Dickey designed the self-supporting structure, which consists of flared, half-conical modules of varying dimensions, out of glass-fibre reinforced gypsum. Dickey recognised that gypsum is one of the most widely used building products today – yet in its typical wallboard format, its material capacities to sculpt space and shape sound are not exploited.

She set out to devise a mono-material architecture that would take full advantage of these properties, working in collaboration with sound designer Ricky Young.

Employing a series of geometrically intricate, reusable moulds, much like those used in the process of automobile manufacturing, Dickey and her team fabricated GFRG components with surfaces shaped by noise-absorbing microgrooves. The resulting pavilion acts both as a speaker and sonic dampener, directing and diffusing sound depending on the user’s relative position.

Photo credit: The Sound Pavilion by Studio Dickey/Rachel Dickey
Click here for a short vidoe of The Sound Pavilion – https://youtu.be/Iih5HNt9UlU

EcoAcustica is a research project consisting of adaptable acoustic controls made from sustainable materials. The team employed composite panels developed by manufacturers Woodskin and TecnoSugheri to create custom, developable surfaces for a highly tuned acoustic performance. (Developable surfaces are ruled surfaces that may be constructed out of flat sheets.)

EcoAcustica: Applying finite element method analysis, the team designed a triangulated ceiling system of alternating smooth and absorptive surfaces. Plywood acts to reflect sound, while cork board absorbs mid- to high-frequency vibrations. After several iterations and tests, the researchers were able to devise a composite surface that functioned more effectively than a typical dropped acoustic ceiling.

The researchers pursued a working hypothesis that workspaces can gain measurable acoustic advantages by employing the same kinds of sophisticated modelling used in the design of theatres and other performance spaces.

According to the team, this performance advantage was enabled “by means of geometrical optimisation aimed at orienting the absorptive surfaces, such as to attenuate sound closer to the source and impact early reflections.”

The Köral system
Singapore-based Anticad has also developed a multidimensional acoustic system called Köral. Designed by TakahashiLim A+D, a design studio also based in Singapore, Köral is a freestanding assemblage inspired by the growth patterns of coral reefs. Köral’s hyperbolic geometry enables it to extend exponentially outwards, creating excessive folds to increase the surface area for sound absorption.

The Köral system is composed of hexagonal and heptagonal plastic composite modules filled with Earthwool and joined by 3D-printed connectors. The system is clad in seamless acoustic fabric.

Unlike the EcoAcustica project, which involves acoustic simulation and design for a specific interior environment, Köral requires no prior modelling. Instead, it functions as an ad hoc assembly to create sonic isolation zones within generic open environments such as exhibition spaces.

As all these projects demonstrate, acoustics can be a generative tool in the design process and not merely a utilitarian afterthought. Such an approach may not be appropriate or feasible for every project. But recognising that work environments of the future will require greater sensitivity to sound control creates a new opportunity for acoustically attuned architecture.

Acknowledgement and thanks are given to Architect Magazine for the information contained in this editorial.

Blaine Brownell, FAIA, is an architect and materials researcher. He is the author of the four Transmaterial books (2006, 2008, 2010 and 2017) and the director of the School of Architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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