Architectural acoustics has been described as something of a black art or perhaps more charitably, an arcane science. While not purely an art, at its best it results in structures that are beautiful as well as functional. To produce art, however, the practitioner must first master the science of the craft before useful creativity is possible, just as a potter must learn clay or a painter his oils.

Working with Lubor Trubka Associates Architects & Tsleil-Waututh Nation, BAP Acoustics ensured the design of this multi-purpose community gathering space would have optimized speech intelligibility and minimal reverberation. Click on image to learn more .

Been there, heard that, but you're not quite sure what it means?

Do the words “architectural acoustics” ring a deci-bel? If you’ve read previous BAP Acoustics blog posts or other content, first of all, thank you; secondly, allow me to reassure you that whatever niggling sense of déjà vu you may be feeling is completely on point. I’ve felt it myself in the process of researching for and writing this article, and I’m reasonably confident that the source of much niggle comes down to semantics and history. 

A branch of acoustical engineering, the field of architectural acoustics—also known as building acoustics and room acoustics—refers to the study of sound in residential, commercial, and public buildings, as well as to the acoustically optimized design of these built environments. Planning stage considerations typically include designing conditions to ensure:


Synonymous or related terminology aside, the study and application of acoustical acoustics are hardly new. Ready for that pop quiz before we move on to history? 🤓

Who founded the field, and why?

Synonymous or related terminology aside, the study and application of acoustical acoustics are hardly new. The scientific study of acoustics can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome, where it played a key role in the construction of open-air theatres.

Architectural acoustics as a modern science, however, began in 1895 in Cambridge, Massachusetts when the Harvard University physics department was tasked with improving lecture hall acoustics in the newly-built Fogg Art Museum.

“Hey, new guy! Want a project?”

Daunted by the seemingly impossible assignment, senior staff shuffled it along until it landed on the desk of physics prof’s assistant Wallace Clement Sabine.

Image credit: National Inventors Hall of Fame

“Sounds like a physics problem to me!”

While recognized for his exceptional teaching and research skills, Sabine was hardly an acoustics expert. So the popular lecturer approached the problem like any other physics research project and began to characterize sound in a room as a body of energy. He then concentrated his research on the sound-absorbing qualities of different materials and their impact on reverberation times. (In acoustics, reverberation is the phenomenon of sound waves vibrating after the sound source has stopped emitting sound.)

“I’ve got an organ pipe and a stopwatch, and I’m not afraid to use them!”

Sabine and his assistants spent years studying the excellent acoustic qualities of Sanders Theatre—an older campus facility now called Memorial Hall—and comparing them to those of the Fogg lecture hall. The crew spent many nights moving materials such as seat cushions and Oriental rugs between the two spaces and testing the acoustics. Equipped only with an organ pipe and a stopwatch, Sabine conducted thousands of measurements to determine the time required for different sound frequencies to decay (i.e. become inaudible) in the presence of the different materials. This painstaking work led to the discovery of a definitive relationship between acoustics quality, chamber size, and absorption surface.

Sabine also formally defined reverberation time—still the most important measurement currently in use for gauging the acoustical quality of a room—as the number of seconds required for the intensity of the sound to drop from the starting level, by an amount of 60 dB (decibels).

Sabine’s formula:

where

T = the reverberation time
V = the room volume

A = the effective absorption area

Applying the knowledge he’d amassed, Sabine installed sound-absorbing materials throughout the Fogg lecture hall to reduce reverberation time and the “echo effect”. 
Symphony Hall, Boston (Image source: Wikipedia)

A star (venue) is born. A career is cemented.

On the heels of Sabine’s successful project, his reputation grew and prestigious architects McKim, Mead & White engaged him as their acoustical consultant for the design of Symphony Hall—a Boston landmark still regarded, acoustically speaking, as one of the best concert halls in the world. In lieu of the wider fan shape more typical of the halls built in America at that time, Sabine recommended the so-called shoebox configuration preferred in European concert halls. Building materials featured brick, steel, and plaster with wooden floors.

A measure of success:
You know you’ve made it when…

…a unit of measurement is named after you. A unit of sound absorption, used to express the total effective absorption for a room interior—is called a sabin—and remains one of the most important quantitative tools in the field of architectural acoustics.

The importance of architectural acoustics in any building

History and concert halls aside, most buildings are designed and constructed for human occupants. Future installments of this series will explore ways in which effective architectural acoustics can make the difference between:

  • well-being and discomfort
  • health and illness
  • learning and struggling to learn.


And yes, all this can be achieved in aesthetically pleasing ways!

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Denny Ng, M.A.Sc. P.Eng.

Senior Acoustic Consultant

Denny is a locally trained and licensed Professional Engineer specializing in environmental noise modelling, architectural acoustics and mechanical noise control. His career as a consultant began with an internship at BAP Acoustics in 2016 while completing his graduate studies in acoustics at the University of British Columbia. Working closely with Eric and Mark, Denny has had the privilege of working on numerous post-secondary education and infrastructure projects including Emily Carr University of Art and Design, UBC Gateway and Brock Commons Phase 2, Stuart Lake Hospital Replacement Project and Nanaimo Correctional Center. His approach to consulting is communicating acoustical concerns as they arise in order to reach cost effective solutions. 

 

Qualifications

B.A.Sc. Mechanical Engineering – Thermofluids Option (with distinction), University of British Columbia, 2014

M.A.Sc. Mechanical Engineering – Acoustics Group, University of British Columbia, 2019

P.Eng. BC

Leanne Farmer, B.Eng.

Acoustic Consultant

Leanne Farmer began her career in Adelaide, where she gained four years of experience providing acoustic design advice across Australia. She possesses extensive technical knowledge in both building acoustics and complex environmental noise assessments. Demonstrating her capabilities in multi-disciplinary coordination and project management, Leanne effectively managed large-scale measurement campaigns and contributed to major infrastructure projects. After re-locating back to Victoria, BC in 2023, Leanne joined BAP Acoustics. She is excited to be working on local projects, applying the experiences and insights gained from her diverse international work.

 

Qualifications

B.Eng. Mechanical Engineering, University of Victoria, 2018

EIT, BC

Alex Mendes, B.Eng. EIT

Acoustic Engineer

A graduate of the University of Victoria, Alex has contributed to an array of computerized acoustic modelling projects during his tenure with BAP Acoustics. His passion for music lends itself to a particular focus in room acoustics modelling, where he has applied creative approaches to navigate the unique challenges posed by varied architectural designs. His expertise extends to outdoor sound modelling, where he has lent his skillset to initiatives ranging from shooting noise control studies to public alert system performance evaluations. Alex’s ardent curiosity and his analytical, pragmatic approach to consultation have served him well in providing sensible, practical solutions to a host of acoustic challenges.

 

Qualifications

B.Eng. Mechanical Engineering, University of Victoria, 2018

EIT, BC

Kathryn Gulewich, B.Eng. EIT

Acoustic Engineer

Kathryn is a Mechanical Engineer who graduated from the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) with a Bachelor of Engineering degree. She pivoted to the field of acoustical consulting upon joining BAP Acoustics in 2022, embracing a transition marked by rapid expertise accrual—particularly in outdoor noise monitoring and HVAC noise control. Kathryn’s solid engineering background supports her technical approach to acoustic challenges, blending mechanical engineering principles with the specialized demands of acoustic consultancy.

 

Qualifications

B.Eng. Mechanical Engineering, BCIT, 2011

Nicole Yeung, M.Eng. EIT.

Acoustic Engineer

An Honours graduate, Nicole earned her M.Eng. degree in Acoustical Engineering at the globally renowned Institute of Sound and Vibration Research founded 60 years ago by the UK-based University of Southampton. Nicole’s project experience encompasses acoustic design, implementation and testing at all stages of work. Her project contributions include examining and optimizing: sound insulation between spaces; room reverberation time; and mechanical noise emissions. She is also experienced in outdoor noise propagation simulation and environmental noise study for: new residential developments; fitness facilities; office buildings; and industrial developments. Nicole has a strong foundation in outdoor noise propagation software Cadna/A. In addition, she is experienced in using programs such as Insul for sound insulation prediction and ODEON for room acoustics. 

 

Qualifications

M.Eng. Acoustical Engineering (Honours), Institute of Sound & Vibration Research, University of Southampton, UK.

EIT, BC