Rethinking acoustic design with wellness in mind
July 13, 2017
We all know that sound affects our emotions and stress levels, for better or worse. Consider the following chart comparing different aural experiences. Some are positive: the sound of rustling leaves in a park, for example. Others are negative, like the sound of industrial equipment.
Surprisingly, acoustic consultants like us don’t usually work on the positive end of the spectrum. Instead, many spend their careers combating noise, which is the industry term for unwanted sound. Architects and developers typically call on us to comply with code, lease, or legal requirements, not to create optimal sonic environments.
This is a missed opportunity, both for the profession and the public at large. We believe that acousticians can and should spend more time creating environments that enhance people’s emotional and physiological well-being, not simply protect them from harm.
First, it’s helpful to understand how we arrived at the current state of affairs.
Like all designers working in the built environment, acousticians operate within a tightly defined regulatory framework. In our case, codes and norms were put in place over the years to address problems related to noise.
There’s no doubt that noise is a very serious concern. In 2011, a report issued by the World Health Organization’s European office blamed environmental noise for health problems ranging from cognitive impairment (particularly in children) to cardiovascular disease. It estimated that traffic noise alone causes the loss of one million healthy life years in Western Europe.
Acousticians can and should spend more time creating environments that enhance people’s emotional and physiological well-being.
Acousticians spend much of their time trying to minimize negative impacts like these. When consulting on a typical project — an apartment building, say, or a school — we work with the broader design team to determine which codes apply, then find ways to address them. In the United States, a project may need to conform to everything from municipal laws to state, federal, and international building codes. Ensuring compliance often requires acousticians to pay close attention to issues like the amount of noise and vibration emitted by building systems (e.g., fans and cooling towers) or suggest ways to limit noise transmission between floors by optimizing floor and ceiling constructions.
Emphasizing the positive
This work is vital, but it doesn’t go far enough — particularly at this moment in history.
In the last few decades, conversations about health and wellness, both physical and mental, have moved from the fringe to the mainstream of American culture. As mindfulness programs spring up across major corporations, boutique fitness centers proliferate, and organic food sales soar, our society has demonstrated a clear interest in improving quality of life across multiple dimensions.
These cultural shifts represent an exciting new opportunity for acousticians. How can the profession do more to support the desire for healthier, more fulfilling lifestyles? How can our focus shift from the bottom to the top of Maslow’s famous pyramid, ensuring basic physiological security while striving for full self-actualization? What environments help people be the best versions of themselves, and how should these environments sound?
You doubtless remember moments in your life when sound and architecture merged to create exceptional experiences. Whether you’ve been uplifted by a choir in a cathedral, energized by a band in a club, or relaxed by soft music in a spa, you have an idea of sound’s potential to influence your life for the better.
Encouragingly, influential design standards have begun to incorporate guidance focused on the positive end of the acoustic impact spectrum.
One of the first attempts to describe best practices in this realm grew out of the recognition that classroom acoustics affect learning — sometimes for the better, sometimes not. This prompted the American National Standards Institute, or ANSI, to adopt guidelines designed to optimize conditions for speech communication in schools. Similar ideas have appeared in the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Schools rating system and, more recently, with the introduction of the WELL Building Standard. We’re confident that more examples will soon follow.
Another hint of things to come can be found just off Manhattan’s bustling Bowery at WOOM Center, a yoga studio that emphasizes the five senses. (One of its founders is a chef.)
WOOM hired Arup to design a 20-channel audio system that immerses visitors in a 360-degree sound field while they move through yoga sequences or rest in supine relaxation. Yoga and meditation classes generally end with a multisensory show: a computer-generated immersive projection that reacts in real time to sound produced by the audio system or live musicians. The studio also offers a class called the WOOM Sound Experience, which kicks off with a discussion of sound’s therapeutic properties.
All this takes place in a space that has been acoustically isolated from the street noise outside, creating a blank canvas for enriching sonic experiences.
We believe that demand for spaces providing a wide range of therapeutic, meditative, and restorative sonic experiences will grow in the coming years. To meet this need, our profession will need to adopt an integrated approach encompassing sound design, composition, acoustics, and audiovisual system design.
And the story won’t end here. As is the case at WOOM, sound will likely make up only one dimension of the experience offered in these new spaces. As designers in all disciplines push to learn more about how the built environment affects our minds and bodies, there’s a growing recognition of the need to join forces to create holistic solutions. Tomorrow’s architecture will bring together a wide range of sensory modalities, from sound to light, scent, and touch — all in the service of health and wellness.