Acoustic ambitions for a better built environment – part 2.


Human-centric commitments.

In part 1, we spoke of the instances in which good acoustic design means something a little different to what we might expect.

There are some sectors and building types where acoustics should no longer remain a ‘silent’ partner to good design, but instead loudly ‘shout’ the presence of the highest quality acoustic design to become front and centre of the building users’ thoughts.

For such developments, it is essential that the aspirations and needs of the user are fully explored and understood. Obvious examples are buildings where the reproduction of sound is their prime function; buildings such as concert halls, auditoria, sound and film recording studios, etc.

However, there exists a multitude of less obvious building typologies where acoustic design is fundamental to the functionality of the building.

In the science and research sector, for example, there is an ever-increasing demand for facilities having the ultra-low noise and vibration environments required for undertaking sub-atomic scale measurements. At the other extreme, the space industry is developing new facilities for the testing of propulsion systems and their payloads, both of which involve the generation and control of ultra-high levels of noise and vibration.

Regardless of the extremes concerned, these are all design tasks that acousticians can deliver on. We also fully understand the need for acoustics to be considered in tandem with other technical disciplines to ensure that the best holistic outcomes are delivered.

A new understanding
Before leaving the topic of human outcomes, it is also worth noting that our scientific understanding of the pathways to human perception of sound is evolving. Traditionally, acoustic specifications have been based around the concept of sound amplitude, often expressed as a single numerical decibel limit. These limits have largely been derived from social surveys which have sought to aggregate the typical subjective response at a community level from the self-reported response of multiple individuals. However, it has long been acknowledged that the response to the same sound stimulus, from individual to individual, can vary widely. Equally large variations in response can similarly occur even for the same person when exposed to the same sound stimulus but across different contextual settings. Now, a combination of advances in non-invasive neuroscience, coupled with the analytics of large data sets using machine learning techniques, is beginning to provide much greater insight into the complexities of human sound perception.

This insight is manifesting as new fields in acoustics, including the study of ‘soundscapes’. This emerging field is seeing the derivation of entirely new objective metrics for describing sound environments, with some of these metrics starting to account for context, including interactions between the senses and especially visual cues.

Perhaps most significantly for the delivery of future high-performance buildings, this enhanced knowledge of human response to sound will allow the active curation of sound environments (soundscapes) specifically designed to improve comfort and wellbeing. In so doing, the traditional reliance on designing according to sound levels, with assumed level-driven boundaries between what are considered to be acceptable versus unacceptable levels of sound, will become a contextualised spectrum of impacts to be more finely managed.

With sound and vibration both being physical triggers for evoking the human senses, it’s easy to appreciate how good acoustic design would naturally lead to improved human outcomes.

In part 3, we talk planet-conscious design, and how acoustic design might help to deliver high-performance buildings which directly address the need for eco-friendly outcomes.

For more information, contact