July 26, 2019
by Robert Marshall
The design challenges of today’s modern multi-use spaces are much more complex compared to those of even a decade ago. Now, more than ever, architects and designers are expected, as a matter of process, to reckon with every element of holistic building design and how each of those elements behave and affect the physical, emotional, and psychosocial well-being of its occupants.
It is no longer just about what functional end a space will serve, but also how the occupants of area feel when they are in it. Today, facilities need to be malleable and reflective of the occupants, transforming with the mercurial nature of life and work, and sometimes personal whims.
So with the ever-evolving end-user demands comes the evolution of design: Occupant well-being has joined beauty and function at the core of how construction professionals have come to define good building design, and its elemental units are things of all the senses: light, space, geometry, texture, surface material, air quality, and acoustics, among others.
Acoustics, specifically, is one of the more significant factors, especially in workplaces, schools, hospitals, public buildings, and other high-use spaces with areas of disparate functions. Consider, for example, workplace environments. A recent governmental study revealed one of the most persistent workplace issues is unwanted noise, noting that more than 11 million Canadians—nearly a third of the entire population—work in noisy environments or had done so in the past. This does not come without consequence—regular exposure to excessive noise can stifle learning, productivity, and collaboration in the workplace, and, worse, it contributes to a host of health issues, such as elevated blood pressure, sleep disturbance, stress, hearing loss, and tinnitus.
These kinds of statistics—combined with building owners and tenants who are better informed about the kinds of performance and ambiance they want in their spaces, stricter National Building Code of Canada (NBC) regulations designed to reduce unwanted noise, and manufacturers who are developing more design-forward acoustical building products—have helped move the science of acoustics into the nucleus of holistic building design strategy. This means acoustics experts are now one of architecture’s best cross-sector resources for creating spaces geared for occupant well-being.
“We have always had a portfolio of work that has covered institutional and sensitive-use projects such as performing arts centres, studios, and residential,” says Steve Titus, a writer for Construction Canada and CEO of Aercoustics Engineering Ltd., an acoustic consulting firm in Mississauga, Ont. “However, what we have seen recently is much more conscious effort on behalf of building owners, brokers, and tenants who are paying closer attention to the quality of the buildings in terms of acoustics. We are now being called upon and involved much earlier and more proactively in the commercial space.”
Yet, while blue-chip architectural firms with high-profile clients and larger budgets tend to rely on a go-to acoustical consultant for their projects, some firms often find themselves on design-build projects without the decision-making power, or the budgetary control to employ acoustical specialists as a part of the design process.
“Sometimes we deliver buildings the traditional way, where we are the consultant hired directly by the owner,” explains Rob Adamson, an architect who specializes in large-scale government and transportation buildings for Dialog in Calgary, Alta. “In other cases, we are in design-build, and the contractor’s motivation is to make a nice building as cost-effective as it can be, so there can be circumstances where the use of an acoustical consultant becomes difficult to include in our project work.”
Firms that cannot employ an acoustical specialist are at a disadvantage in controlling acoustics, and the spaces they design are at risk for noise hazards. Those stakes become even higher within the context of open-plan design—which exploded over the last decade into the default approach to residential and commercial space planning, thanks to client taste and the cost efficiencies it offers—because there are fewer surfaces to absorb sound.
So what are specifiers and designers to do?
The case for an expert
An acoustics specialist is a wise investment for most medium- and large-scale projects (especially open-plan projects). Even if designers have a basic understanding of the fundamentals of acoustics, chances are they lack the institutional training and specialized tools of an expert, not to mention the field experience to interpret sound wave patterns into usable design and building product recommendations.
Also, a common misconception is that acoustics is a commodity, and the same control measures of one building type can be applied to similar buildings. Therefore, a consultant is not needed. Indeed, many spaces share common characteristics, but one does not really know how sound will behave from building to building or even space to space. As occupant well-being becomes a bigger piece of the architect’s puzzle, acoustic solutions should be adapted and tailored for each project and an experienced acoustician can identify when to rely on a past solution and when to create a new approach.
The acoustical performance of a space designed without the input of an expert can certainly be functional, but it is rarely optimal. In the best cases, acoustics are tolerable for occupants. In the worst, acoustic control is ineffective or altogether nonexistent, threatening occupant well-being and potentially resulting in code violations and expensive remediation efforts.
What to consider with an acoustical consultant
Here are six items to consider—with input from specifiers and acoustical experts alike—when weighing the role of an acoustical consultant on a project.
Budget versus value
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main reason for avoiding the hiring of an acoustics expert on projects greatly benefitting from their recommendations usually comes down to available budget. When budgets are tight—or under the control of a general contractor (GC) other than the architect or designer responsible for acoustics—going through the processes for effectively attenuating a building’s acoustics can, on the surface, seem cost prohibitive. However, again, the remediation efforts for poor acoustics can be even more costly, time consuming, and disruptive to occupants.
“Working in the industry, we understand budgets can be tight, and my main advice to clients in this regard is to ensure they simply tailor their scope to the level of fees they can support,” says Titus.
Mark Bliss, president at Vancouver-based acoustics firm BKL Consultants, agrees. “Even if we are just hired to perform an initial review at the beginning of a project, that can at least help the stakeholders understand the acoustical risks they face on a project, for a building’s functionality and for its reputation” he explains. “We have been involved on too many projects where major decisions were made without this awareness and issues could have been easily avoided.”
Peter Osborne, a partner at GEC Architecture, understands the value of having a trusted acoustics expert on his projects. GEC with offices in Edmonton and Calgary has designed recreation centres, post-secondary institutions, LRT corridors and extensions, and a variety of innovative mixed-use/residential developments. The science of acoustics factors heavily into the vast majority of their work.
“We see it as a research- and evidence-based approach to design,” explains Osborne, who works in GEC’s Edmonton studio. “We do not want to just guess and hope the space is going to function. We want to create an environment we know is going to perform. An acoustician can run tests and speak to whether we need more or less of a certain absorbing material for a space to be successful.”
He brought that mentality to his design of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) Productivity and Innovation Centre in Edmonton, which trains students pursuing tech careers in solving industry-driven problems through applied research. It is a wide-ranging education requiring a flexible, high-performance space with acoustic control calibrated for different types of tech research happening throughout the building.
The building’s A wing features large, open, single-story space with a 6-m (20-ft) head space housing lab spaces dedicated to hands-on research that can be wet, messy, dirty, and noisy. The B wing is a four-storey structure designed for heads-down analytical research with classrooms, collaborative breakout spaces for small meetings, and a large lecture theatre. The wings are linked by an atrium functioning as a gathering space for researchers and doubles as an event and conference space for NAIT to showcase its educational programs to the public.
“We consulted an acoustician who helped us look at the design of the various rooms and the kind of qualities they needed,” Osborne says. “We also met with users to get an understanding of what they required.”
Esthetics was also of concern. The space needed to offer the ‘NAIT’ look and feel—high-tech and industrial to reflect the institution’s polytechnic roots and forward-looking, solutions-oriented culture.
“In the B-wing classrooms and breakout spaces, we used metal ceiling baffles as a way to control noise within the spaces but still allow us a level of an exposed ceiling,” Osborne explains. “The metal baffles were really important in providing a connection to the exterior, which has a lot of anodized aluminum elements, and we wanted to bring that technical aspect into the design of the public spaces of the building. It gives the building a unique, modern quality and a technical feel that you would not get with a more conventional product.
A good ear and eye, and a practical mindset
It is key to work with an acoustical consultant who understands architectural design. Acoustical consultants can be theoretical, but architectural realities often demand more practical approaches. Building teams want a consultant who has experience working in architectural spaces and considers esthetics and design in their recommendations.
One of Rob Adamson and Dialog’s recent projects included the state-of-the-art redesign of the international terminal at the YYC Calgary International Airport, which moves 15 million air passengers a year. In terms of acoustics, the 185,000-m2 (2 million-sf) open-space structure was a complicated project with different zones requiring various levels of acoustical support. There were also the added challenges of working within the existing building plans (underway for several years), and contributing to the sustainability and carbon footprint of the terminal design.
Adamson and his team worked with Cliff Faszer of FFA Consultants in Acoustics and Noise Control, addressing the acoustic needs for each zone individually with multiple acoustical ceiling products and large floor-to-ceiling columns made of sound-absorbing material, and in the process, the product selection also ensured esthetics was not compromised.
“Sometimes we are interested in special qualities—the look, feel, and esthetics,” says Adamson. “So the ability to bring that creative thinking to solving design problems is an important attribute we look for in acoustical consultants.”
Bliss echoes the sentiment.
“Even for professionals in building acoustics, consultants with experience and knowledge in the specific needs of certain building types are not so common,” he says. “Understanding the balance of acoustical needs within, say, healthcare or education buildings requires a degree of expertise that can only be gained through an accumulated knowledge of the specific requirements of the users and the limitations of construction methods.”
An understanding of construction limitations is important for offering creative acoustic solutions to those constraints.
“We have circumstances—like some hospital projects, for instance—where the recommendation is six layers of drywall on steel-studded partition walls to achieve sound transmission class [STC]. Think of how thick and heavy that wall is to support and how costly it is to build. You have to have a smart acoustical consultant who says, ‘If you want to achieve that level of sound separation, there are other ways to do it.’ They have to be agile and skillful to be able to work in the contractor world,” says Adamson.
STC can be described as the rating of how effective building partitions are in attenuating airborne sound.
Types of spaces and their acoustic needs
Every building presents its own nuances, and every project has its own set of design challenges.
Buildings with very high acoustic expectations, such as auditoriums and performance spaces, obviously require significant support from a specialist. However, spaces with more common use also have their share of acoustic needs.
Open offices, for example, need acoustic control tailored to heads-down, high-concentration solo work at desks and areas for collaboration and small meetings. In healthcare facilities, convalescence and privacy concerns require a great deal of acoustic control, while lobbies, corridors, and other public spaces may need less. In primary and secondary educational institutions, students are developing language skills, so acoustic control can help facilitate learning by making communication as clear as possible.
“Projects such as schools, courthouses, civic centres, healthcare facilities, performing arts centres, studios, and the like have always required significant acoustic support,” says Titus.
With the 2015 update to NBC’s acoustic requirements, even residential buildings require greater level of support to meet as-built acoustic performance requirements.
“Commercial was once the sector requiring the least support, but we are seeing an increasing number of commercial projects requiring and desiring increased support—everything from base building design to office fit outs and restaurants,” Titus adds.
Industrial facilities generally require the least amount of acoustic consideration.
Building products for control measures
Partition walls and floor spacing are important factors in indoor noise, and as of 2015, NBC guidelines dictate their installation requirements in dwellings to help control sound travelling between floors and spaces.
However, in the case of large-scale, open-plan design—which often means multi-use spaces including a large, open area and a variety of breakout sections—the challenges require a different solution. In these cases, ceilings are the most important vehicle for acoustic attenuation.
Manufacturers are creating innovative new products, ceilings in particular, that enable designers to exert acoustic control while maximizing esthetics, especially in open-space designs. The product palette available to designers today is flush with clouds, baffles, and other free-hanging sound absorbers in a variety of materials, shapes, colours, and sizes, as well as acoustic panels with unconventional surfaces like wood, metal, felt, painted fibreglass, and customizable textiles.
While acoustical consultants rarely make recommendations on any specific manufacturer’s products, they will offer suggestions on performance ranges that products designed for control measures should meet. This information, combined with technical guidance from a manufacturer on its products, can help specifiers understand how much absorption is needed and the acoustical products best suited to meet the desired level of absorption and esthetic goals, all of which helps control the budget.
On Adamson and Dialog’s previously mentioned Calgary airport project, they used a variety of ceiling surfaces—modular panels, perforated aluminum, and, the esthetic focal point, lightweight wood—to control acoustics and offer a distinctly ‘Calgary’ look.
“The terminal is a large-volume space with a lot of activity in peak hours —sometimes they are jammed with people, sometimes they are not,” says Adamson. “At the same time, there are not a lot of surfaces in a building like that, and the surfaces we do have are hard. So the spaces are very reverberant… While we have a beautiful wood ceiling it is actually performing a very important sound-dampening role in those peak periods. It is a high-performance acoustic surface, but it is also a warm wood ceiling for esthetic reasons.”
Lesser considered risks
“Over specifying the acoustical provisions can lead to poor acoustics as much as under-specifying them,” argues Bliss.
Inadequate acoustical performance can mean discomfort for occupants and costly acoustical remedies after the fact. A space whose acoustics are over-designed for esthetics can create installation challenges, squander valuable budget dollars in unnecessary materials, and, in some cases, present too much acoustic control.
Caroline Shelly, principal of U.S.-based design firm HF Planners, recently completed a project of an open-plan office. Shelly and her team had proposed the inclusion of a consultant for the project, but the client’s budget did not allow room for it.
“The client felt that we had addressed most issues by use of the clouds, baffles, ceiling design, double-glass walls, and use of hanging felt panels,” she explains. “While we had addressed how to handle noisy areas very well, what we did not account for were areas that were too quiet.”
The client ended up installing a sound-masking system after the fact to compensate.
The key is providing acoustic control appropriate for each space, and that is best achieved through the recommendation of a specialist.
Supply and demand
Finding an acoustical consultant with a background in architectural spaces can be tricky. In smaller markets, it is even trickier.
Take, for example, Calgary—Dialog’s home base. Calgary is an 826-km2 (319-mi2) city that is home to 1.2 million people with a steady stream of redevelopment and building projects.
“One thing we are finding is, there is not a big roster of acoustical consultants to pick from,” Adamson notes. “It is a pretty specialized area. We have three acoustics specialists to choose from in our city.”
“The acoustical consulting industry is very small, so the workforce is concentrated in metro areas in only a few firms,” agrees Bliss. “While it has become easier to work across different cities with video conferencing, file sharing, and other [information technology] IT tools, we have found it is often still critical to have knowledge of the local context, and that may not always be available in small towns.”
Another factor to consider is there are many acoustical consultants who only practice in a very niche space that does not directly apply to the project in question. Further, as an emerging specialty within the context of architecture, the field of acoustics contains consultants of varying levels of training and experience. It is up to each design team to determine what experience level is right for each project’s goals and budget.
“The measure of a strong acoustical consultant,” says Titus, “is one who has a portfolio covering many industries, areas of practice, and/or building types.”
Conclusion: Designing for changing expectations
As occupants, owners, and building codes demand more out of the spaces in which they live, learn, work, and play, the design world must develop new solutions that are increasingly influenced by occupant well-being. In today’s building environment, acoustical experiences have become a significant factor in those solutions.
The key for specifiers and designers is to have an understanding of the acoustic needs of a particular project, as well as the optimal measures for meeting those needs within the context of what is architecturally practical, and the acoustical implications of cutting costs. It is a delicate balance in most cases best addressed with the input of an acoustical consultant.
Robert Marshall is the senior technical manager for CertainTeed Ceilings and a lifelong participant in the commercial ceiling industry. Marshall is the product of one of world’s first acoustic ceiling contracting businesses, a company founded by his family in 1927. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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