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Tuesday22 July 2014

Sound mapping research promises to change how architects design for acoustics

Architects will be able to design out noise conflicts.
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New software plans to turn sound mapping into an everyday tool for architects

Cardiff psychology professor John Culling may seem an unlikely figure to be talking about architects and acoustics, but he is leading a collaboration between Cardiff University, the Welsh School of Architecture and the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC) on a project they believe will revolutionise the way architects design interior spaces.

“I think architects don’t pay a lot of attention to acoustics all of the time,” says Culling. “If they had something that would do the predictive work for them and give them some impression of what this room is likely to be like once people are in it, it might help them to prioritise it a bit more.”

The project promises to produce revolutionary sound mapping software that will be able to help architects to design out noise conflicts in everyday spaces.

Although the software is in early development stages as yet it can only predict hot spots in standard rectangular and square rooms it will eventually be able to link up with other design software, using a system underpinned by a new mathematical equation. The equation is informed by two strands of research, examining how people take sound in through both ears and how noises affect each other.

The project is not the first to investigate sound and its implications for architecture, and acoustic mapping has been around for some time, although traditionally targeted at performance venues.

Arup Acoustics pioneered the use of computer audio software in the built environment more than 15 years ago with its Soundlab. The company now also uses acoustic prediction software packages Odeon and Catt to support architectural projects.

“If you want to take a person speaking and find out how loud they are going to be around the room then, yes, they can be used for that,” explains Jeremy Newton, senior auditorium designer at Arup Acoustics.

“But it seems that the interesting thing [with this new software] is that the model is underpinned by an analysis of psychoacoustic perception. Most of the other programs we use are based upon room acoustic calculations.”

The EPSRC project promises to make sound mapping technology more accessible for practices working on the design of common noisy indoor spaces like restaurants, cafés and offices.

“What we’ve got is something that takes information about a room and can turn that into a prediction of how intelligible speech is going to be in a given situation,” said Culling. “Very little has actually been done to improve the acoustic of day-to-day meeting places, even though this would help all of us in our working and social lives.”

But its true usefulness remains to be seen. Christopher Ash, a director at Project Orange, concedes that such a tool could be useful for meeting certain regulations. “We probably would use this kind of software, but only to make sure we weren’t making any howlers,” says Ash. “Most of the time experience teaches you how to work with the space to get the right balance without having to do sound modelling.”

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