Designed to be Seen and not Heard
Modern Acoustic Management
They look as good as they sound – contemporary acoustic solutions lead with cutting-edge aesthetics while meeting strict functional requirements…
Done right, acoustic management is something most people – the general public, at least – might never have to think about. Whether in a concert hall or a café, if the architects, suppliers and builders have thought things through then it just works: you hear the sound you want to hear – music, conversation – without an overwhelming amount of background noise and reverberation. In fact, the general public is probably more interested in aesthetics than acoustics.
Luckily, there is no longer any reason to succeed in one of these areas at the expense of the other – customised acoustic solutions can now be delivered in a limitless range of design outcomes to meet the most exacting aesthetic briefs.
While the public might not give much thought to acoustics (until they encounter a noisy, fatiguing din), those of us in the construction industry are the exception that proves the rule. The more thought we put into acoustic management in the design and construction phases of a project the better the outcome, and the less the end user will notice our efforts. Architects, developers and clients should enlist professional help and get expert acoustic advice tailored to each project. They should specify acoustic control products from trusted local manufacturers who can provide reputable third-party acoustic test reports and expert advice on how best to integrate their products into a design.
Just as importantly, good acoustics is not a luxury but a necessity. Consideration must be given to it in the early design stage. Otherwise, it can cost significantly more to deal with acoustics once a project is built and a solution needs to be retrofitted. Also, these post-construction solutions are likely to be less acoustically effective or less aesthetically attractive than if they were planned for from the outset.
Phil Grimshaw, a director at Australian-owned architectural and building material supplier company Atkar, has been advising the industry on acoustic solutions for over 20 years. Grimshaw says it is crucial that architects gain a solid understanding of how the people who will be working in the spaces of a completed project will function and what tasks they will be completing. What spaces do they need to perform their best?
It can be a great idea, Grimshaw says, to run a staff or client survey to see what users want to achieve in a space. Often what a project’s directors think their staff need and what they actually want can be quite different. It is vital to have alignment so there is full buy-in and enthusiasm for the design across an entire organisation. This user-centred approach to design applies to all aspects of planning but asking specific questions about planned activities and their likely noise levels can save a lot of trouble in the long run.
The science of acoustic management begins with reverberation times, which are the parameters used to objectively describe the echoic quality of a room. Long reverberation times will cause sound waves to be prolonged and echoes are created. The more reverberant a room, the more people will raise their voices to compensate for the increased noise level to make themselves heard over the background noise. This only compounds the problem and makes for a very unpleasant environment.
Modern design directions and the trend toward minimalism only compound these issues, where the proliferation of hard surfaces leads to extended reverberation times. Since we are unlikely to see a shift away from sleek modernism anytime soon, we need to look at acoustic panelling and other noise management solutions. Fortunately, contemporary acoustic systems offer limitless aesthetic possibilities and no one should need to compromise on their design vision in order to attain an enjoyable audible environment.
Proprietary acoustic systems are readily available which can be incorporated as wall or ceiling linings into any project design. Used correctly, these will assist in bringing down reverberation times to the recommended levels for a range of project types. These are set out in AS/NZS 2107:2000, which is the Australian Standard for Acoustics – Recommended design sound levels and reverberation times for building interiors. Also, as striving for elite Green Building Council Australia ratings becomes ever more important, the acoustic performance of spaces can contribute credits toward the GBCA’s Indoor Environment Quality category.
The best-known manufacturer of proprietary acoustic systems is Atkar, whose acoustic panels are used extensively by designers throughout Australia for such purposes. Companies such as Atkar will usually have invested significant time and resources into acoustic testing of their product systems and can provide third-party acoustic test reports to assist in selecting the correct solution for any project.
Acoustic products are now available in many different formats, designs and finishes and, with the level of customisation that can be provided by a company such as Atkar, acoustic panels can actually provide a signature aesthetic touch across any project while also meeting and exceeding functional requirements.
In years gone by, Grimshaw says, most suppliers – in lots of specialisations, not just acoustics – had regimented ranges, with few options, and that’s what architects had to stick to. Customisation now presents previously unimaginable possibilities.
“With the exponential increase in drawing programs, digital modelling, and machinery capabilities, more and more we are seeing the shift toward bespoke and one-off designs on projects, and we can make our panels to suit this,” he says. He gives the example of curved panel installations, which a few years ago weren’t possible but now is “almost the norm”.
When ARM Architecture were designing the Geelong Library and Heritage Centre (GLHC), a unique, multiple award-winning domed building with faceted surfaces throughout, they were pleased when Atkar, who they had worked with before, was chosen to supply the complex acoustic panelling the project demanded. This meant ARM, working with builders Kane Constructions, could execute a highly aesthetic design of interlocking geometric panels that, in areas such as the centre’s lecture theatre, needed to follow the curved ceiling created by the domed exterior.
“Atkar collaborated with ARM and Kane Constructions to prototype and manufacture a range of highly effective panels that could fit the sometimes unusual contours of the interior spaces across the library and heritage centre’s five levels,” Atkar Director Phil Grimshaw says.
The GLHC is a perfect example of how contemporary acoustic management can contribute to the success of a project. Based on some of the great domed reading rooms of the past, it reimagines what a library can be in the 21st century. This was to be a place that caters to a range of different community outcomes, including activities noisier than traditionally associated with libraries. Managing noise – without ‘shushing’ anyone – was always going to be a critical part of the design requirements.
“The librarians’ brief was for a contemporary people environment. That means moving away from the traditional model of a library as a quiet and meditative study environment to one that celebrates community interactions and exchange,” says Andrea Wilson, Principal at ARM Architecture.
ARM considered acoustic dampening from several angles, combining noise-absorbent furnishings such as a large and vibrant circular carpet with prominent padded columns throughout the split-level ground floor and mezzanine space.
But, with the ground floor open to a patio and parkland beyond, the use of a concrete floor meant that Atkar’s custom-made panels on the ceiling and walls were the fitting solution to effectively minimise noise reflected from hard surfaces.
“The acoustic panelling on the ceiling and walls plays a huge role in reducing reflectivity,” says ARM’s founding director Ian McDougall. “Atkar – who we’ve worked with before and who specialise in this particular sort of finish – do a great job. It’s a high-quality finish as well as being extremely effective in the way that it works from an acoustic point of view,” he says.
Atkar regularly subjects it products to independent acoustic testing and the results of these tests are studied by engineers and scientists such as those at Vipac, the firm ARM used to advise on acoustic implementation for the Geelong project.
“From a technical perspective, Vipac was engaged to ensure that echoing didn’t occur and that noise transfer from the hard floor, and from one level to the next, also didn’t occur. That requires a level of technical expertise and that’s why we employ acoustic engineers,” Wilson says.
The GLHC project, which has just won the AIAA’s coveted Sir Zelman Cowen Award for Public Architecture on top of a slew of other awards, has been a resounding success. In the 12 months since it opened, the new building has welcomed over 454,000 visitors. Average monthly visits are now around 38,500, compared with 14,000 to the old Geelong Library. Membership rates have also seen a significant increase of more than 6,000, indicating people are planning to make the library an ongoing part of their lives.
Two other Atkar projects also speak to the aesthetic possibilities of contemporary acoustic solutions. Trinity College’s new Gateway Building is a state of the art precinct at the University of Melbourne. It incorporates a 300-seat auditorium, five drama rooms, an art gallery, music room and classrooms over three levels. In the auditorium, the design features a combination of perforated and solid triangular timber panels in a distinctive Blackwood veneer. The Blackwood veneer leaves were handpicked by architects McIldowie Partners then applied in a mismatched style to custom folded 3D panels. Wrapping down from the ceiling onto the walls and flowing from the entrance into the auditorium, the panels provide optimum acoustic performance and simultaneous visual impact, creating a wave-like contrast rippling in warm tones.
The newly completed Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre (VCCC) is an ambitious facility on an iconic location in Melbourne’s prestigious Parkville Biomedical Precinct. The project demanded an aesthetic presence in keeping with its status as a cutting-edge research and medical treatment centre. Atkar worked extensively with the STHDI+MCR design team (STHDI+MCR is a partnership of Silver Thomas Hanley and DesignInc with McBride Charles Ryan) to develop a graphic pattern on the Welcome Hall ceiling. The resultant dappled, organic and cellular patterning creates a peaceful and tranquil atmosphere through subtle lighting effects.
Acoustic solutions continue to contribute to a wider and richer textural palette than many would traditionally consider possible. At the VCCC, a spotted gum timber flows through the building in a series of different patterns and effects. The finish brings a sense of warmth and cheer to an environment that might otherwise be stressful for the cancer patients who use the facilities there. It goes without saying that the acoustic products used throughout the VCCC meet the strict regulations pertaining to such a sensitive project.
As these few examples suggest, while the role of acoustic panel systems is primarily a functional one, with constant innovation and advancements in design technology, machinery capabilities and improvements in surface finishes, acoustic panel systems can be designed, with limitless possibilities for customisation, to perform a key aesthetic purpose.
Just don’t leave it to the late stages of a project. It’s never too early to consider the acoustics of a design, but neglecting to do so will always bring headaches, noise, and painful costs further down the track.