1. “Acoustics is Only Important in Performance Venues and Other Large Spaces”

Acoustics is commonly associated with studios, concert halls, and other large performance venues. While acoustics is a critical aspect of those spaces, acoustic environments also impact productivity, stress, mood, and health in the places where we work, live, and socialize. In fact, most people can quickly recall an uncomfortably loud restaurant, the inability to sleep in a noisy hospital room, hotel room, dorm room or apartment. Others can relate to noise and distractions in their school or office, or how they can’t hear sermons at their place of worship. It’s essential to look at the built environment holistically and consider how acoustics affect people in the spaces where they spend the majority of their time — which is not large presentation halls, conference spaces and performance venues. An acoustic design that isolates a work-a-day hospital patient room from elevator noise will never be featured in the local paper like the acoustic design of a concert hall, but it may actually be more important. A dedicated acoustician will address acoustical issues that are often overlooked.

2. “Acoustics is a Black Art”

There is an impression in the industry that acoustics is a black art. At its core, acoustics is a complicated, but well understood, branch of physics; however, the behavior of sound energy in an ever-changing landscape of building materials, construction methodologies, and unique building configurations can be extraordinarily complicated. Adding further complexity are the physiology of human hearing and our varied psychological responses to noise. Finally, acoustics’ goals must be achieved using commercially-available products that are practical to construct while supporting a project’s functional, aesthetic and budgetary goals. It’s obviously not feasible to perform a complete analysis of every single acoustical issue a building presents. Where appropriate, acousticians must supplement detailed calculations with past experience and rules-of-thumb. That said, a pragmatic acoustician will have a firm understanding of the owner’s goals and help the design team make practical design decisions and well-considered compromises. They will also provide a technical explanation when asked, and revise their position when it does not align with the project’s goals.

Single-number acoustical ratings like Noise Reduction Coefficients (NRC) and Sound Transmission Coefficient (STC) are familiar to most architects, but acousticians are often reluctant to use them. While single number ratings provide an attractive means to compare two products, they often undervalue important design information and the acoustician’s recommendations.

 3. “All I Need are Acoustic Panels for Sound Isolation”

A basic fabric-wrapped panel is the most widely recognized acoustics treatment. So let’s dispel some confusion about what it can and can’t do. We often break architectural acoustics into three parts: room acoustics, sound isolation, and building system noise & vibration control. Room acoustics is the application of room shaping and finishes (such as fabric-wrapped panels) to control how a room responds to sound. Room acoustics affects things like speech intelligibility, music clarity, and reverberant noise build-up within the room. Sound isolation deals with the physical construction of a room’s envelope and its ability to control noise transmission between adjacent spaces. Sound isolation is achieved by modifying the construction of walls, doors, floors, ceilings, and glazing. It is not achieved by adding acoustic finishes like fabric-wrapped acoustic panels to the walls. Some hybrid materials do exist, but they’re rarely necessary or practical. Finally, as the name implies, building system noise and vibration control deals with a wide range of design modifications and isolation devices to control noise and vibration from mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems, as well as elevators and other building equipment. A thorough acoustician will explain the difference between these elements, which constitute a complete acoustic design.

On a related topic, many interior designers cringe at the thought of applying gnarly fabric-wrapped panels to the walls of their beautiful spaces. So do acousticians –- there’s nothing worse than seeing uninspired fabric-wrapped panels in a stock-gray, heavy-weave fabric haphazardly hung on a wall. An ever-expanding palette of acoustic materials are available to complement almost any aesthetic, act as an artistic focal point of the room, or simply disappear into the interior design. These include sound-absorbing plaster, wood, metal mesh, perforated metal, etc. Conscientious acousticians will seek to understand the aesthetic intent of each room, present a wide range of options, and work with the interior designer to develop a solution that satisfies the project’s acoustic, aesthetic, functional and budgetary requirements.

4. “Let’s Just Wait and See”

Architects and owners must navigate a daunting number of competing design requirements, and acoustics understandably takes a back seat to structural requirements or life-safety systems. However, even if you plan to address acoustics later in the project, it’s worthwhile to engage an acoustician early to avoid major pitfalls of the wait-and-see approach.

First, not all acoustic solutions are practical to retrofit. While it’s fairly simple to retrofit an absorptive panel, it’s impractical to change the building layout, rebuild walls, or thicken a concrete slab late in the design process, let alone once the building is constructed. An acoustician can identify which items are appropriate to postpone and ensure that fundamental elements are in place to facilitate future acoustic improvements.

Second, don’t delay engaging an acoustician when the budget for acoustic solutions is uncertain. A savvy acoustician will prioritize the need for different acoustic elements based on the available budget and owner expectations. When an acoustician is engaged early, they can help the team avoid problematic HVAC layouts and room adjacencies. These issues are easily avoided in a building’s early planning stages, but they’re incredibly expensive and difficult to address late in the design when budgets are exhausted, and the design is locked into place.

Acoustics issues don’t disappear when they’re ignored — they simply go unaddressed until it’s too late or too expensive to do anything about them. Even if a project’s budget is limited, a foresighted acoustician will maximize the available budget and set expectations when compromises must be made.

5. “I Don’t Need an Expert”

It’s a running joke with acousticians that our biggest competitor is no one. Truly, the biggest acoustic decision an architect or owner faces is whether to consult an expert. Not being acoustic experts themselves, design teams may underestimate an issue, or fear an expert will recommend costly solutions to problems they never knew they had. As a result, acoustic issues are often ignored or the design team takes a haphazard guess at a solution. However, just because a problem sounds expensive to address, that doesn’t mean that ignoring it will make it go away. A thoughtful acoustician will develop cost-effective solutions, set expectations when compromises must be made, and be downright stubborn when you’re about to make a terrible mistake.

There is another view that acoustics is a commodity, and if you’ve designed a specific building type once, you can skip the consultant and use solutions from the last project. While it’s true that some space types have common elements and requirements, the same can be said of the entire AEC industry. Yet, it remains a bespoke industry. As architects seek to create unique environments to address the needs of individual owners, acoustic requirements and solutions need to be tailored to each project. An efficient acoustician will know when to adapt proven solutions and when to develop new ones.

The final reasons for not engaging an expert are, “We’ve done it this way for fifty years, and we’ve never had any complaints!” And its cousin — “No news is good news.” Both of these statements are about the laziest responses one can give to a new idea. First, these positions ignore a shared AEC goal of innovation, continued progress and improving the quality of the built environment through evidence based-design. Second, acousticians know that complaints have not been heard because (1) no one asked the right people, (2) the respondents weren’t comfortable voicing a complaint to their employer, or (3) the complaints are filtered through a third-party who was responsible for value-engineering the acoustic solutions.

Studies by the GSA have consistently shown that noise is the most common complaint in offices. A similar trend has been shown in the hospitals. Walking through an open office, you’ll notice many employees wearing headphones. The reality is that employees are listening to distracting music as a poor substitute for ear plugs and sound masking (and if you just now bought a box of earplugs for your employees, you’re missing the point). The same goes for restaurants, retail spaces, and performance venues. The reality is that most consumers don’t complain or run to the Internet to rant about a noisy environment. They simply don’t return. Revisiting another common theme, ignoring acoustical issues doesn’t make them go away. A diligent acoustician can help owners understand the benefits of an appropriate acoustic environment and the implication of cost-cutting measures.

6. “We Just Need to Meet Code”

In general, noise regulations in the US are sparse and poorly written. The IBC sets overly simplistic minimums for sound and impact isolation in multifamily dwellings. The EPA, Federal Housing Auditory, Federal Rail Administration, Federal Highway Administration, and Federal Aviation Administration, and local/state noise ordinance offer some guidance on environmental noise intrusion and limits on environmental noise emissions. Finally, some specialty codes and owner requirements, like ANSI s12.60 – Acoustic Performance in Schools, The Facilities Guidelines Institute for Healthcare Facilities, HIPAA, Hospital HCAHPS surveys, and the USGBC publish various acoustic requirements and guidelines, which may or may not be required depending on the project type, funding source, owner licensing, and project location. Despite this, the acoustic environments in most buildings are largely unregulated. Savvy owners and the GSA provide specific acoustic criteria, but many owner requirements are vague and ineffective.

What all of these regulations have in common is that they define minimum acoustic performance. This is the bare minimum level of quality that a project can hope to achieve. Acoustics is not unique in this regard. In an environment of ever-expanding codes, performance metrics, and regulations, most projects can barely keep up. However, it’s important to understand that, as a measure of indoor environmental quality, minimum performance certainly doesn’t imply occupant satisfaction. A knowledgeable acoustician will explain applicable codes and regulations while suggesting targeted improvements that will have the most benefit for a building’s occupants.

7. “Acoustics Don’t Add Value”

Working in a multi-disciplinary technology consulting firm, I’m jealous of how easy it is to convey how a new piece of disruptive technology can create a paradigm shift in an owner’s day-to-day operations.  People are familiar with technology. They use it every day. It’s visible, relatable, familiar, flashy, progressive, and often a status symbol. However, architectural acoustics is one of those disciplines, like structural engineering, MEP, or life-safety, that progresses quietly and invisibly behind the scenes. No one ever compliments a structural engineer with, “Wow, that building really stayed together nicely today!” The same goes for acoustics. You may not notice when you’re in a well-designed acoustics environment, but you’ll know immediately when you’re in a bad one! Our success is often measured by the absence of failure. In some ways, good acoustic designs mask their own utility, adding to the mystery of the discipline. Often, the value of hiring an acoustic consultant is simply viewed as an insurance policy against potential acoustic issues. In reality, there are numerous studies linking good acoustic environments to health and productivity, but these can be hard to monetize. A well-versed acoustician will help an owner navigate these benefits.

Greg Coudriet is a principal consultant for The Sextant Group, and is LEED Accredited Professional, Building Design & Construction (LEED AP BD+C) by the U.S. Green Building Council, Board Certified by the Institute of Noise Control Engineering (INCE), and a member of the Acoustical Society of America.