Anticad's Köral acoustic system, designed by TakahashiLim A+D
Anticad Anticad's Köral acoustic system, designed by TakahashiLim A+D

One of the most significant realizations to emerge from the pandemic is the importance of acoustics. With many of us working or attending virtual classes at home, often in the same rooms as other family members, the lack of acoustic privacy has become a critical concern.

The problem is unlikely to disappear when employees return to the workplace. Even after a vaccine is successfully deployed en masse, we will continue using video conferencing because of its convenience and familiarity. Workplaces will be transformed into hybrid modality platforms with face-to face and remote communication: employees will engage in live-stream video conversations from all points in the work environment.

This phenomenon will be decidedly different from the telephone and in-person conversations of pre-COVID offices. Today’s video calls are more likely to be lengthy group meetings with extended periods of focused attention and less tolerance for distraction. Some of these exchanges can occur in acoustically isolated conference rooms, but more will take place in noisy open office environments, increasing the demand for acoustic control beyond what noise-canceling headphones and headset microphones can provide.

It’s a novel acoustic challenge for architects and designers and will require more sophisticated material strategies than conventional acoustic ceiling tiles, fabric panels, and carpet. Rather than treating acoustics as an afterthought by deploying mass-produced, sound-absorbing products, architects and designers will need to approach sound control as a multidimensional, space-shaping opportunity

The EcoAcustica research project

According to building technology researchers at the Politecnico di Milano in Italy, noise is one of the last considerations in the design of interior environments. Design teams often specify off-the-shelf sound-absorbing products that do not always fulfill the particular acoustic requirements of spaces or programs. “Nowadays, a new awareness on the topic of architectural acoustics design has pushed towards finding new integrated methodologies able to deliver tailored solutions for the design with sound, which embed performance criteria early in the design phase by means of simulation and computational techniques,” write Andrea Giglio, Ingrid Paoletti, and Maia Zheliazkova in an article, “Performance-Based Design Approach for Tailored Acoustic Surfaces,” that was published in the open access book Digital Transformation of the Design, Construction and Management Processes of the Built Environment.

The authors describe the development of EcoAcustica, a research project consisting of adaptable acoustic controls made from sustainable materials. The team employed composite panels developed by manufacturers Woodskin and TecnoSugheri to create custom, developable surfaces for highly tuned acoustic performance. (Developable surfaces are ruled surfaces that may be constructed out of flat sheets.) The researchers pursued a working hypothesis that workspaces can gain measurable acoustic advantages by employing the same kinds of sophisticated modeling used in the design of theaters and other performance spaces. Applying finite element method analysis, the team designed a triangulated ceiling system of alternating smooth and absorptive surfaces. Plywood acts to reflect sound, while cork board absorbs mid- to high-frequency vibrations. After several iterations and tests, the researchers were able to devise a composite surface that functioned more effectively than a typical dropped acoustic ceiling. According to the team, this performance advantage was enabled “by means of geometrical optimization aimed at orienting the absorptive surfaces such as to attenuate sound closer to the source and impact early reflections.”

The Köral system

Singapore-based Anticad has also developed a multidimensional acoustic system called Köral. Designed by TakahashiLim A+D, a design studio also based in Singapore, Köral is a freestanding assemblage inspired by the growth patterns of coral reefs. Composed of hexagonal and heptagonal plastic composite modules filled with Earthwool and joined by 3D-printed connectors, the system is clad in seamless acoustic fabric. Köral’s hyperbolic geometry enables it to extend “exponentially outwards, creating excessive folds to increase surface area for sound absorption,” according to the manufacturer. Unlike the EcoAcustica project, which involves acoustic simulation and design for a specific interior environment, Köral requires no prior modeling. Instead, it functions as an ad hoc assembly to create sonic isolation zones within generic open environments such as exhibition spaces.

The Sound Pavilion
Studio Dickey/Rachel Dickey The Sound Pavilion
Sound Pavilion detail
Studio Dickey/Rachel Dickey Sound Pavilion detail

The Sound Pavilion by Charlotte, N.C.-based Studio Dickey takes this sculptural approach to acoustics one step further by creating a freestanding inhabitable environment. Firm principal Rachel Dickey designed the self-supporting structure, which consists of flared, half-conical modules of varying dimensions, out of Glass Fiber Reinforced Gypsum. Dickey recognized that gypsum is one of the most widely used building products today, yet in its typical wallboard format, its material capacities to sculpt space and shape sound are not exploited. She set out to devise a mono-material architecture that would take full advantage of these properties, working in collaboration with sound designer Ricky Young. Employing a series of geometrically intricate, reusable molds, much like those used in the process of automobile manufacturing, Dickey and her team fabricated GFRG components with surfaces shaped by noise-absorbing microgrooves. The resulting pavilion acts both like a speaker and sonic dampener, directing and diffusing sound depending on the user’s relative position.

As all these projects demonstrate, acoustics can be a generative tool in the design process, not merely a utilitarian afterthought. Such an approach may not be appropriate or feasible for every project. But recognizing that work environments of the future will require greater sensitivity to sound control creates a new opportunity for acoustically attuned architecture.