In order to successfully incorporate good acoustics in building design, it is helpful to understand why it is so often neglected and allowed to fall short. There are several reasons, I think, starting with how we perceive building design. Architects by nature are visually oriented. It is how they describe their design ideas; through plans and sections, details or beautiful renderings. Their tools, whether hand drawings or computer aided drafting, are visual tools. When a project is finished, design awards are awarded with the aid of beautiful photographs. The value system in building design is heavily tilted towards the visual. Therefore, when a project is over budget, among the first things to go are acoustical treatments. This is typically because acoustics have never been central in the building design discussions and are consequently not perceived as having the same value as other systems within the building.
To change this dynamic, it is critical to make acoustics integral in the design process. One way to do this is to use sound labs that can simulate the acoustical and sound qualities of spaces that are being designed. If a sound lab is not available it can be extremely helpful to visit similar spaces that have both good and bad acoustics. Just as it is important for clients to understand how many people, chairs or work stations a space will accommodate, it is critical to understand the acoustical limitations and possibilities when making value judgements, such as the limitations bad acoustics will create and the flexibility great acoustics and sound will provide. If the budget will not accommodate everything that is required to create a space with wonderful acoustics and sound, it is critical to design in such a way that upgrades can easily be done in the future.
Finally, it is important to engage the architect in the design process and include them during the problem solving. Inspiring an architect to integrate the acoustic solution into the concept for a space or a building will not only increase the likelihood that the solution will not become the victim of cost savings, but it will also result in a better overall design.
For example, the Wattis Theater, a small theater EHDD recently designed for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), incorporated acoustic solutions that were made early in the design process. The needs for the theater required a flexible acoustic solution that would accommodate live music, film screening, lectures and events. This system required distance from the sidewall speakers to the seats, something that was in conflict with the intimate feeling I was hoping to achieve in my original design. To accommodate this distance, transcendent walls became the design solution. Transcendent walls are acoustically transparent, which provide the enclosure necessary for an intimate space while allowing sound to pass through without affecting its quality.
This design was made possible through a collaborative design effort among the architects, acoustical engineers and Meyer Sound engineers. The result being: an integrated architectural and acoustic solution that together enhanced the overall character of the space.
Architecture and sound most certainly can find common ground. In fact, when the two are considered closely as support systems for an overall design solution, the ground is not only common, but solid, flexible, and even transparent. Architectural and acoustic solutions should not be treated separately, because when treated as two parts of the same whole, the result will be both pleasing to the eye and the ear.