Sound and Sustainability
Making my way around our built environment its signature tune greets me with its constant hum and clatter.
Vehicles and people’s voices, chiller units and large ventilation fans are the basic characteristics of the sound world of our urban environment. Some have a seductive hum or interesting overtone but all are contributing to the ever increasing volume of noise. The sound of people is gradually being drowned out. Its time to quieten down the machinery and get back to a less noise cluttered world.
It is mainly through the visual media that we evaluate and communicate the effectiveness of buildings, and our ability to articulate the impact that the other perceptual realms of sound, smell or touch have on us is much less developed. Sound and noise are the source of some of the most vexed problems in designing buildings.
A few years ago, I took part in action research based over the three cities of Leeds, London and Bristol, where participants with different specialisms came together to create an interdisciplinary exploration of how sound impacts on our understanding and shaping of the city. The project gave the opportunity to look at my own practice as an architect with a background in music and sound art , and to ponder the reasons why designing with or for sound is comparatively rare. We all understand intuitively that sound in buildings is important, but in building design this is often restricted to compliance with regulatory requirements such as acceptable sound levels in spaces required for specific purposes (classrooms, performance spaces) or to avoid disturbance to neighbours.
One technique I have used to integrate the sonic environment in to design involves analysing sites with sound recordings and embedding them in pdf documents with maps and photos. This is an interesting first step but does not in itself guarantee consideration of the impact on the sonic environment further in the design process.
Interestingly a sustainable design approach also contributes to a good quality sound environment. Adopting a ‘passive’ approach to building design also creates a calm environment, uninterrupted by background hum, hissing of air through grilles or buzzing of light fittings .Other background sounds to come to the fore- the murmur of conversation or the sound of nature through an open window. I acknowledge the latter is a rarity in an urban environment but sometimes the background noise of a city at a suitable ‘distance’ can be equally re-assuring and animating.
Passivhaus is now becoming increasingly the core approach to sustainable building design and the passivhaus buildings I have been in have a feeling of calm and freshness that is appealing and even enlivening.
One of the anxieties raised by people, myself included, when first encountering the passivhaus approach is around the requirement to seal up the building’s internal environment and the possibility of not having the option of opening windows and doors at will. It also potentially separates us more from the sound world that is around us. However, as we have become more sophisticated in our design approach and passive design, my experience has been that these buildings have a sound world which is a quiet and calm but still live, and with the excellent internal air quality, the careful use of natural light and the constant temperature and warmer radiant surfaces there is a great feeling of ease.
Once established, this calm sound world can be further modulated by the qualities of reflectance of the materials used and their ability to control reverberance.
Natural materials seem to offer good opportunities to create further interest in the way a space is ‘heard’. The qualities of lime and clay plasters, and even exposed rammed earth surfaces, extend the palate for creating better sound worlds beyond that of exposed masonry and gypsum plaster. The use of wood panelling is not a new advent but is something that is more consciously used as environmental impacts are considered.
I have concentrated on the quality of the sound inside buildings but equally, the role buildings play in reflecting and absorbing sound externally is another area for much fruitful consideration and debate. We are looking to create lasting solutions to the problem of living with finite resources and at the same time using the opportunity to improve the quality of our everyday experience.