Acoustics Considerations for Shared Spaces

11/25/2019 | By Valerie Dennis Craven

Sound can inspire or detract from a space, and shared spaces such as restaurants or open rooms can be difficult to control. Anthony Poon of Poon Design Inc. provides considerations and solutions for a positive experience in shared spaces. Listen now>>>

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Valerie Dennis Craven: Hello, I’m Valerie Dennis Craven, editor with interiors+sources and BUILDINGS, and I’m here with Anthony Poon to talk about acoustics in shared spaces.

Anthony is principal at Poon Design, Inc, based in Los Angeles. What’s interesting and unique is that in addition to being an architect, Anthony is also a classically trained musician. He works on a variety of commercial spaces, including educational facilities, public spaces and hospitality projects.

When designing he considers and can contribute to the exterior and interior along with the aesthetic and function of the space. Because of all of this, he provides a good background and perspective to discuss acoustics in a shared space. Thank you, Anthony, for joining us on the podcast.

Anthony Poon: You’re welcome. And thank you, Valerie, for having me. And good morning.

Valerie: Good morning. We’re excited to talk about this. So, when designing a space, you have a goal for a singular vision for the entire comprehensive experience. Can you describe what that means to you and how sound and acoustics play into all of that?

Anthony: Well, when we design at Poon Design, we believe in a fully integrated experience. So, of course, we do the architecture, and we do the interior design. We also design the furniture and accessories, we design landscape and lighting, but it goes further.

We want to design the graphics and branding. We help our owners curate their art. We even select the music that’s played in the space and might even help them with the uniform design. So, it’s an entire comprehensive experience in which you’re trying to tell the story of the client.

Valerie: Nice. Yeah, so can you give us a little information? You’re a trained musician. What you can bring to that and why is sound and acoustics in a shared space important?

Anthony: Well, I grew up playing piano, classically trained, so I’ve always been sensitive to sound. And you can hear the simplest sounds in nature and find a quiet musical, or you can find something very upsetting, something that just ruins the experience and journey through a space.

When we design, we want to provoke all the five senses, not just what you see—architecture is much more than visual. It’s what you feel, it’s what you hear. In terms of music, when we work with our hospitality clients, such as a restaurant, we want to think about how the music relates to the architecture design.

As you know, if you’re at a restaurant, the vibe during breakfast is different than a busy professional lunch. The music might be different during the dinner hour, it might wind down during late-night hours, it might be very active during happy hour.

So, we want to capture that entire experience through the day through the way we designed the music, the sounds, the lighting quality—everything of this comprehensive experience.

Valerie: Great. So, in these open or shared spaces, you brought up a restaurant specifically. How do you have the good sound and acoustics come through? Like the music background—sometimes it’s even hard to hear your server if you’re in a bad space, or your own conversations with the people you’re with in the restaurant—and keep out the sounds like glasses clanking together or other people’s conversations or the HVAC system right above you. How can people manage and address it?

Anthony: It’s funny you asked that because I read an article last year that talked about the new trend in design is sound quality and acoustics. I found that very odd because I think that’s something that every architect and every designer is thinking about. It was ironic to me it was like saying the new trend in car design is safety.

So, acoustic environments are important whether it’s a shared workspace, whether it’s a church or whether it’s a restaurant. It’s important because as we all know, we’ve been at the restaurants where you can’t even have a conversation with the person sitting two or three feet away from you. Yet you hear the kitchen clanging and you hear someone yelling over at the bar.

Our approach to it is something that most architects have used before and stated, calling it the ABCD of acoustic design. And just to give the quick summary, A is Absorb. Where we use certain materials, acoustic panels and fabrics absorb sounds. B is Block—block the sounds. So, there are sounds coming from the mechanical room or the kitchen, you’ve got to put up the right kind of walls and use acoustic insulation within the walls.

C is Cover—that’s covering up and masking. Sometimes you can’t control the sound, but all you can do is mask it. And you could use music for that you could use the sound of a fountain, there are ways of creating white noise.

And then D is Diffuse. A lot of times noise isn’t just about the source of the noise, but it’s the reverberation. It’s a way it’s traveling back and forth and just doesn’t seem to go away.

In some restaurants, our owners want to have that buzz, they want to have that energetic vibe, but sometimes it’s also too much. So, diffuse is breaking up the sound maybe through slightly angling a wall so it doesn’t reverberate and echo back and forth. It can be diffused just through using soft art sculpture or hanging a chandelier. So, those are the ABCD that most architects know. Absorb, Block, Cover and Diffuse.

Valerie: Is there anything specific—you’ve mentioned like open office is big thing or in a restaurant, open kitchens—would people just really focus on the ABCDs? Or when people are designing or renovating a space, are there any other tips or solutions you could share?

[Related: Connecting End-to-End Systems in Buildings Through Smart Lighting]

Anthony: Well, within each of those categories, there are a lot of different ways of approaching it. I mean, I can talk to one case study to go through some of the specifics we’ve tried. We designed the restaurant called Chaya downtown in Los Angeles. It was a 9,000-square-foot restaurant for a prominent client who had been in the restaurant business for over 400 years. It’s been a big family tradition.

The owner wanted a fine dining restaurant, but they also wanted to be lively and to be hip and cool and have the music. But they wanted it to also work as an intimate experience.

The first thing we did in that restaurant was to break down the space, it was very large. We broke it down through partitions so there were smaller spaces, but the partitions were only half wall height, so you still got to feel the grandeur of the space.

The partitions were made of walnut and brass mesh that helped to contain the sound within the areas and not let it reverberate too much. We hung big art, soft art, soft canvases, we hung giant chandeliers, not just to give an intimate scale to the restaurant, but it also helped with controlling the acoustics from bouncing around too much. Our huge kitchen was walled off. It was partially open, but mostly walled off. The walls were framed with acoustic insulation or also double frames to reduce some of the loudest sounds.

When we installed the speaker audio system, a lot of places, whether it’s hospitality or commercial, will put one or two speakers in one corner of the room and just blast the volume. Anyone sitting right under those speakers, it’s just not working. They can’t hear themselves and the music isn’t traveling to the other side. So, we work with our acoustician, our AV consultant, and placed dozens of speakers equally spaced in the ceiling throughout. So, you had a very even ambience of music.

Lastly, it’s the selection of fabrics on the furniture, the banquette, the walls. We even looked at a trick we’ve done before on the underside of tables—we could put absorptive material, the sound hits the floor, it bounces back up, but before it hits everyone’s ears, it hits the bottom sides of the table and that absorbs the material.

And then the last thing we did was what we call the transparent ceiling. The ceiling is a wood, flat ceiling that’s open. So, architecturally it gives the impression that the space is even higher. But up above, it’s just dark. And what we put in that cavity is acoustic insulation, which was made from recycled blue jeans. Sound goes up, it gets absorbed and then never bounces back down.

Valerie: A lot of creative solutions where the regular person might not even notice.

Anthony:  Yeah, the approach is not to make it look like we put Band-Aids all over the space to control sound. We work it and integrate it all into the design. A simple technique that you would see in office spaces is put acoustic ceiling tile. That obviously works, it’s affordable, it’s not always the most attractive. So, we want to try to find more interesting ways to capture that same performance level but with a better sense of design and aesthetics.

Valerie: Great, yeah, I like that. I can tell you, as somebody who’s eating at a restaurant, I’m not putting my hand or looking under the table to see if there’s acoustic panels. So, that’s an interesting solution, too. I like that.

Anthony: Exactly.

Valerie: Yeah. So, how can somebody know that they might have a space—you just gave a lot of solutions, and those were really good. I love the case study—but if somebody is building or renovating a space, how do they even know if they have something that might need to be addressed? Is there anything they can kind of do to see what pockets of space might need more attention or anything?

Anthony: Well, it starts with the owner establishing what the goal is. If it’s an office space, a shared office space, do they want active with a little bit of a buzz or do they want it very quiet? Probably depending on what kind of business it is.

[Related: Open Office Furniture and Layout Concepts]

In my architecture studio, it’s an open space. There’s music playing, it’s active, there’s conversations, there’s noises, and we like that. It reminds us of being in design school.

I would imagine for another type of office, maybe a law office, where people are researching and reading and having private conversations, it’s a completely different kind of goal. So, you start with discussing with the client and the owner, what are their acoustic goals?

The second part is really listening to the users. I think they will tell you, as you said. Are there problems? If you come out of a restaurant, and I have, and my throat is sore from having yelled back and forth with my date for an hour-and-a-half, something’s not right.

We have literally come out of restaurants, but our ears are ringing. That’s telling us something is not quite working.

And the third and last point is to realize that spaces need to be tuned. You can throw in all these measures and they still need to be adjusted. You need to figure out what works or what doesn’t work.

I remember I grew up in San Francisco and they opened Davies Symphony Hall and they installed all sorts of dampening systems and curtains and drapes that went up and down, there were plastic discs over the stage, the flex sound and help with sound travel and reverberation.

And for years they had to every week, keep tuning, put the curtains higher, lower, tilt the disc. The project was like a musical instrument—you have to tune it constantly to make sure it’s working. And making sure it’s meeting the original goals set up by the owner and the client.

Valerie: So, it’s not even just installed and then you’re done. Like, really you encourage people to even go back and refine.

Anthony: Exactly. The acoustics is part science and engineering, and part magic and mystery. Some people don’t know why certain spaces work great acoustically, and some people don’t know why some things work extremely well.

You could set up a space, we could hang some beautiful art on the wall and realize it’s still not working. And merely by switching the pieces of art, all of a sudden, the acoustics work better. Maybe one piece has just the right amount of absorptive quality. Maybe it’s a size, maybe it’s the angle in which the painting is tilted.

So, you do have to constantly tune the space. You can’t just put in half a dozen requirements and elements and think the whole thing is going to work.

Valerie: Great, thank you. Good tips and considerations. Is there anything else you would like to add for our listeners that we may not have touched on?

Anthony: I think in closing, I would urge everyone to think about acoustics at the most technical level in every project you do—whether it’s a house, whether it’s a classroom—the children must be able to hear the teacher and not the air conditioning system.

We already talked about restaurants and workspaces. Think about it in a museum or a gallery. A lot of designers are creating the most beautiful of hospitality spaces using wonderful selections of colors and materials but forgetting that the quality of the acoustic environment can compromise everything that has been put together so beautifully and so visually as a composition.

So, keeping in mind, it’s not the hottest new trend in design. It’s about as basic as making sure your roof doesn’t collapse as an architect.

Valerie: Great. Thanks, Anthony, for taking the time to speak today. Good information.

Anthony: Thank you, Valerie. Thank you very much.

Valerie: Thank you listeners for tuning in to another episode. Hear all of our podcasts by going to our homepage and clicking the podcast tab at the top. I’m Valerie Dennis Craven with BUILDINGS and interiors+sources.

[End transcript] 

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