Listening environments, sound acoustics for timber buildings, and alternative materials for acoustic products – these are the areas of acoustic innovation the industry can look forward to in coming years, says Cundall Australia’s new head of acoustics, Dr Chris Field.

Dr Field, an award-winning acoustics inventor and leading Australian acoustics consultant, was recently appointed to lead multi-disciplinary consultancy Cundall’s new local acoustics department – a move that is expected to bring a new dimension to the firm’s offerings, including improving its work on sustainable projects.

Building or architectural acoustics refers to the achievement of good sound within a building, and can be about suppressing noise to make offices a more productive space, or enhancing the quality of music in a concert hall. However, acoustics is rarely a stand-alone science, but closely integrated with many other building elements and initiatives.

For instance, architects that want a naturally ventilated building usually design an operable fa├žade or windows, but this strategy leads to acoustical challenges as noise inevitably flows from the external environment and streetscape into the building.

“Acoustics covers a lot of bases, in terms of crossing over with the thermal comfort, day-lighting design and visual comfort of buildings. When you try and achieve those things in a Green Star-rated building, it always has acoustic implications, while in green building design we are also targeting acoustic comfort conditions and environments,” explains Dr Field (pictured left).

“My specialty is providing acoustic solutions for these green building designs where we have to achieve other non-acoustic targets… and dealing with the other Cundall disciplines so acoustics is a natural fit to make sure that the design of a building is holistic.”

Cundall's Australian offices are all naturally ventilated. Image: Gillian Keough 

Acoustic comfort is a huge part of sustainability, including workplace productivity and indoor environmental quality. The University of Sydney’s Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) Lab for example, notes that sound is one of the key factors shown to have the greatest impact on an office worker’s health, comfort and productivity, alongside air temperate and speed, humidity, light and air pollutants.

Recent updates to the Green Star rating system also acknowledge the links between sound acoustics and environmentally sustainable design (ESD), with credits now allowing a “minor tolerance in old noise levels” to allow for the benefits of natural ventilation. In other words, more noise is allowed into buildings that seek natural ventilation and daylight.

Huge gap in market for acoustic services remains

Despite the importance of sound acoustics, Cundall acknowledges that a huge gap exists in the market in terms of services that acoustic consultants are offering to clients.

“We already provide a lot of the green design and we do a lot of indoor environmental quality and engineering, but what we didn’t do in Australia up until now is to offer clients the acoustic side of that equation,” says David Clark, Director of Cundall Australia.

Cundall's Birmingham office: suspended acoustic rafts create a great aural environment, which enables employees to video conference at their desks without disturbing others. Image: Martine Hamilton Knight

One of the key issues raised is how the technical aspects of acoustics are being communicated to clients, with Dr Field noting that most acoustic consultants today are still very “old school” and rely on providing complex reports that clients don’t necessarily fully understand.

Rather than saying ‘trust me, I’m the expert and here’s my report’, he says consultants should instead focus on providing listening environments where clients can listen to and visualise designs before they are built.

These sound simulations, or 'auralisations', are similar to architectural visualisations, and allow clients to experience a project’s acoustic environments. This often evokes an emotional and passionate response, whilst giving end-users a chance to offer their feedback.

“[The technology] is out in the marketplace now, but definitely the next step for auralisation is to get into Augmented Reality and virtual worlds. We’re already experimenting with our acoustics team in the UK with virtual goggles called Oculus Rift which uses 3D gaming engines…to bring those to 3D architectural models of a project that you can walk through and visualise but also listen,” says Dr Field.

One of the things he is looking to set up in Cundall’s Sydney office is therefore a design lab that offers such visualisation and listening environments.

At the same time, the acoustic challenges of timber structures, including timber-framed projects as well as buildings with timber walls and floors, is another area he hopes to explore in his new role:

“The acoustics of timber buildings is an unknown sort of element in timber building design, and I’ve been doing quite a bit of work over the last few years to research the acoustic performance of timber walled and floored buildings to make sure we achieve the building code requirements.”

Timber acoustic engineering and design is set to become more popular as more timber buildings are designed and built in Australia, especially if the National Construction Code approves the proposal for a deemed-to-satisfy requirement for the creation of timber structures up to 25 metres.

What’s next for acoustics in Australia?

Apart from these new acoustic consulting and engineering options, Dr Field says the industry should look out for new alternatives to traditional acoustic materials such as mineral wool and polyester. He points particularly to crushed recycled glass, which is 100 per cent recycled glass crushed almost to granules and bound together by heat, meaning no binders or chemicals involved, and which provides acoustic absorption.

The rise in these new materials are driven by demand from clients, who are requesting for more sustainable solutions, including the use of less toxic materials and virgin materials if recycled alternatives are on offer.

“The materials and supply chain is one area of sustainability that has lagged behind. There’s been a lot of focus on energy, water, indoor environment quality, but materials have always been seen as too hard,” adds Clark.

“There are some challenging standards coming from overseas for materials, things like environmental product declarations, and we need to see more of those for materials.

“One of the hardest things to get information on is what goes into products, what they are made of, what toxins are in there, where is it sourced from. There’s a whole pile of work that needs to be done on improving the supply chain.”

Clark was the principal author of the first Green Star rating tool in Australia, and was integral in expanding Cundall’s global sustainability services. Dr Field is an award-winning inventor who designed Silenceair, a building ventilation system that allows fresh air to circulate freely through homes while keeping out 85 per cent of the noise that would otherwise enter through an open window. The product won the 2004 Invention of the Year on the ABC’s New Inventors TV Programme.