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Fallingwater - a house built over a waterfall in southwest Pennsylvania

Architecture & The Senses: Sound

Architect Anthony Pettorino shares his thoughts on how sound comes in to play when creating places and spaces
"Running water is a musical instrument in itself. It can sound like anything from someone weeing into a bucket (bad) or a babbling brook in the woods (good)"

In the design world, sound traditionally falls into the scientific field labelled acoustics. Usually it comes down to wanting to hear something really well or not at all. Concert halls and sound proof rooms are the two extremes and this is where most of the science is focussed. In a nut shell, hard shiny surfaces reflect sound and soft textured ones don’t and too much of either can cause an unpleasant aural experience. Clatter can make it difficult to hear things clearly, and deadness just doesn’t feel right.

Then along comes ambient sound. The endless din of city traffic, birdsong at dawn, distant waves, running water, leaves rustling in the breeze, the buzz of chattering children assembling before a school trip, a busy restaurant, the crackling of an open fire, and music, all unique in themselves.

In my introductory article ‘Architecture and the Senses’ I mentioned a YouTube video where a blind teenager on a skateboard glides effortlessly between parked cars and pedestrians navigating purely by sound. As a child he learned to survive by making clicking noises and listening to their echo reflections. This told him the difference between a tree, a hedge, a building, car or pedestrian or just open space. The technique is called echolocation, and is the same technique used by whales and dolphins to navigate and communicate.

Those of us with the gift of sight think little about what sounds tell us about our physical surroundings. But, if you take the time to stop and listen, and try to isolate just the aural signals from all of the others, you start to ‘see’ things differently. Weirdly, I do things like walk around with my eyes closed and focus just on what I can hear. It’s amazing how it constantly changes. The scraping of shoes on the pavement bounces around and very clearly tells you if you are in a soft or hard environment and all places in between. Even with your eyes closed you become very aware that there might be a wall in front of you. For those without sight, echolocation creates a ‘sphere of perception’, the mind’s eye for those without functioning eyes. It’s an unusual world, it fades as it gets further away, has no colour, light or shade but can be incredibly complex and rich with texture. A bit like radar or sonar, it gives no clues as to what might be hiding behind something else.

For the sighted, the visual world is dominant, and often seen to be the only one. But, when blocking one’s ears completely changes the whole experience we see that our aural sense makes up a big part of our complete being. I listen to a lot of music, but very rarely use ear phones. When walking our dogs or taking a (rare) run in the woods, it’s the ambient sound I want to hear, the one that completes the picture of where and when I am, but then I don’t live next to the M25.

Many times I’ve been asked to create ‘soundproof’ rooms or offices for the sake of confidentiality. I learned some time ago that unless you want to be in a concrete bunker this is not necessarily the right approach. The best place to have a conversation where no one else can hear you is the noisiest place you can find. In a quiet office or domestic environment sound travels, so the best solution is distraction. The irritating noises made by computers and fridges humming away are easily dealt with by providing more pleasing ambient sounds alongside them. In our office, it’s music. Turn it off and the humming machines and other’s conversations would be too distracting.

It is undeniable that sound is essential in completing our experience as humans. Try watching a horror film with the volume at zero and it becomes a silent comedy. As designers, aural quality is not that difficult to control, but it takes an intuitive understanding of how sounds bounce off surfaces and what we might like to hear in the background.

Running water is a musical instrument in itself. It can sound like anything from someone weeing into a bucket (bad) or a babbling brook in the woods (good).


Water features in design can create an amazing ambience, but be careful because if you get it wrong it could go very badly


We are currently working on a new library for a school in Oxford. In a silent environment, the smallest noise can be an irritating distraction, different activities may be taking place in adjoining spaces, and quiet conversations can be heard by all, so how is this best dealt with? Although the project is already under construction, there is still time to experiment and to see how inspiring, ambient sounds may improve the teaching and learning environment for the benefit of all. The sounds of nature are the starting point and the research continues.

Around the world there are a number of acoustic research facilities called anechoic chambers. Latin for ‘without echo’, anechoic chambers have thick walls that prevent sound from getting in or out, and sounds generated from within are completely absorbed by walls, floor and ceiling. The experience of being in such an environment is reported as being disturbing. Alone and in the dark, the only sounds generated from within get lost and never bounce back. The brain then makes things worse by compensating and becoming hypersensitive. Accounts from those mad enough to go there describe the overwhelming noises coming from within their own bodies. Air rushing through air ways, blood surging through blood vessels and a total loss of orientation and balance. A horror story well worth avoiding.

Each and every domestic environment is different. In some there may be traffic noise that needs masking, or in others the silence may need enhancing. Designers must ensure that yet another invisible sensory consideration is taken seriously. The texture of surfaces and the control of ambient sounds play a huge part in the puzzle of our complete human experience and enjoyment.


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