Arup’s Sound Lab Brings Acoustics Into the Architectural Model
Arup's Raj Patel discusses Sound Lab, a new technology that allows architects to make digital models of how sound will work within their buildings.
It’s not such a foreign experience to stroll through a building before it’s been built. Architectural “fly-through’s” – digital animations, usually set to an especially unnerving brand of easy-listening techno – have become a standard means of explaining the experience of a building before the first golden shovel hits the soil. Architects have become quite adept at using these tools to illustrate the way a building might look, but what of the way it sounds? Slick animations and renderings will do little to show a symphony conductor how a the thin strains of a piccolo will reverberate in his yet-to-be constructed hall, or the way a professor’s voice will project to the last row of seats in an un-built auditorium. Thanks to something called ambisonics, architects and their clients are now getting a chance to hear their buildings as they’re being designed. Last week, Raj Patel, principal and acoustic consultant at Arup treated the crowd at Yale School of Architecture’s Sound of Architecture Symposium to a presentation on his company’s Sound Lab. The Sound Lab uses a battery of speakers arranged in a spherical configuration to mimic the acoustic properties of a digital architectural model. In real time, designers can change the shape of a hall, the material of the seats, the angle of the walls, and hear how it might affect the acoustics of the final building. The technology is changing the way architects and acoustic engineers design. I caught up with Patel to find out more:
Jordan Pierce: How did the idea for the Sound Lab come about?
Raj Patel: It came from the need to have a tool to explain acoustics and sound issues to architects, artists, clients, musicians, and other design professionals by listening, rather than technical reports, graphs, and other jargon. It was also driven by an aim to make acoustics and sound something you could consider and actively use in the design process, rather than just “try and make work” after the fact.
JP: Prior to the creation of the Sound Lab, how did you explain the acoustic performance of a building to your clients?
RP: We used 2D and 3D sound ray traces and visualizations, acoustical scale models and computer models, measurement comparisons, and benchmarking studies to compare spaces, not dissimilar to tools architects use. The limitation was that acoustics issues can be hard to understand. Visual tools are helpful. Visiting buildings can help too, but it is hard to retain acoustic memory once you have left. So having the ability to come back, listen, and compare multiple times is hugely beneficial, especially when your benchmarks are a long way from the location of your project, or where the design is taking place. It also helps to start to develop a common language about sound amongst design professionals.
JP: How do people react when using the Sound Lab for the first time?
RP: I never tire of watching the smile emerge on people’s faces when they hear some basic comparisons, things they have been trying to understand for years, and suddenly they get it! It becomes liberating. Many people arrange to come for an initial visit and then either stay for several extra hours, or come back multiple times in the days and weeks after the initial visit to learn more.
JP: Has the Sound Lab changed the way you design spaces?
RP: It had fundamentally changed the way we work and the speed at which we can work. Rather than spending weeks backwards and forwards trying to determine the shape of a concert hall, or the design of a facade for sound isolation, a quick demonstration allows subjective decisions to be made and move forwards. In terms of what we can design, it has allowed us to explore new ideas with architects, test them fully, and extend the reach of where architecture and design can go in acoustics terms.
JP: This September, Arup brought similar technology into the center of London with the BE OPEN Sound Portal in Trafalgar Square, providing an immersive acoustic experience in the middle of a crowded public space. What sort of experiences will visitors have when they enter into the Sound Portal?
RP: The Sound Portal is a mobile version of the Sound Lab. We have recreated it before for projects with artists in different places around the world, either inside buildings, or as temporary outdoor structures. The projects develop in different ways. When artists come to us wanting to use the technology, we partner with them and we jointly find opportunities for the work to be displayed. Other times, clients have artists in mind and a pair them with us to develop works. In some cases we work closely with the client to develop a project and then find artists to work with us. In this case the content was commissioned by contemporary music organization, Sound and Music, on behalf of the London Design Festival. The event was co-produced and funded by BE OPEN Foundation. Arup met with each of the artists to provide technical assistance on their pieces. Some already had significant experience in working in immersive audio formats, but others were new to working in this way. In these cases we presented a variety of techniques and worked with the artists to help them develop the spatialization they were looking for. Most of the pieces were finalized or tested in the Arup Sound Lab in London.
The experience of stepping into the environment is to transport you sonically to a new world, utilizing your sense of hearing in 3D. The technology allows you to focus on the sound of space, and build a mental picture of the architecture that is creating it.
Jordan Pierce, a native of Oakland, CA, is a Masters of Architecture student at the Yale School of Architecture.