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Invisible Architecture: Encouraging design with all senses in mind


Blog by Keith A. Simon, AIA, LEED AP, Owner of Ecotone Design Lab, LLC

Within the past few weeks I’ve experienced:

  • A pediatric doctor’s lobby that was so acoustically reverberant that it eliminated all privacy
  • A café that was so loud I had to raise my voice to speak with the person sitting next to me
  • A patient’s room where the unintelligible acoustics made it difficult for the nurse to articulate her recommendations
  • And a classroom where the sound experienced by the students varied from location to location.

According to recent studies (ASID, Oommen 2008, Lechner 2012), 70% of office workers believe their acoustic environment reduces their productivity, 60% of occupants in multi-family housing complexes complain about noise from their neighbors, and poorly designed acoustic environments reduce test scores, cause high blood pressure and stress levels, as well as increase conflict. These shocking statistics might not be so surprising when we consider that the majority of today’s architects could be described as occularcentric – that is, obsessed with aesthetics at the expense of performance and experience.

Sometimes users of a space complain enough and the Owner or stakeholders are sympathetic enough to address poor acoustics and remedy the situation. However, it is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit that most of the time – the users simply deal with a bad situation. Here’s the crazy part – it is typically a relatively easy fix to improve the acoustic environment! All of the negative situations I described in the first paragraph were caused because the volume and geometry of the space coupled with overly reflective material selection created a reverberation time that was too long for the desired use of the space: speech. The solution would be to run a few calculations, select materials with appropriate sound-absorption characteristics and figure out where to locate them. Acoustic remedies for spaces can, but do not need to affect the aesthetics of the space itself. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a beautiful, high-performance, and affordable space? The dream is tangible.

This blog entry is the first in a series on invisible architecture. Look for future blog posts to cover design with the sense of touch (no veneers, bare feet), design with a sense of smell (careful how you specify plywood, commercial secrets learned from bakeries), and reactions from a tour of the newly designed campus at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired – with universal lessons learned for architecture.

Note: Keith Simon is a preferred architect with the Russell Consulting Group because of his brilliant yet sensible approach toward building design.  As with any clients we work with, our mission is to help them make long-term decisions that will save money, increase market share and minimize the cost of employee turn-over. Smart architectural design which goes beyond good looks should always be a part of this success strategy.