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Sound and Acoustics in Buildings

by Ron Kurtus (21 February 2007)

Acoustics is the study of the physics of sound. Acoustics in buildings concerns controlling the quality and amount of sound inside a building.

It is used to allow for pleasant sound in a concert hall and to reduce echoes and noise within an office building. Acoustics also concerns suppressing sound coming from outside the building, such as in apartments.

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Concert and lecture halls

If you've ever gone to a concert hall or other large building to hear your favorite musician or band, you may have noticed that in some places the sound seems distorted and muffled, while in other halls it is crisp and sounds like you are in the front row. This has to do with the acoustical design of the hall.

Concert hall designed for good sound

Concert hall designed for good sound

Sound can be distorted

Sound coming from the people on the stage and from the placement of the various loudspeakers spreads throughout the auditorium. Some of the sound reflects off of the hard surfaces of the walls and the ceiling. In a large hall, this can result and in an effect call reverberation, where you hear a slight echo that can distort the original sound. This can also result in dead spots in the hall or auditorium, where the sound can hardly be heard, as well and as other areas where the sound seems too loud.

Good concert halls

Good concert halls are designed to eliminate unwanted reflections and echoes and to optimize the quality of the sound heard by the audience. This is done by engineering the shape of the room and the walls, as well as to including sound absorbing materials in areas that may cause echoes.

Lecture hall

Similar considerations must be made in a college lecture hall, so that the professor can be understood by all of the students in the session. Although the sound quality does not need to be as good as in a concert hall where music is being played, it still must be good enough to prevent echoes and other things that will distort the words coming from the professor.

Work buildings

In an office building, where there are cubicles with dividers in a large work area, there is often the problem of noise from conversations and other activities. The quality of the sound is not an issue as much as suppressing unwanted noise.

Sound-absorbent walls in office cubicles

Sound-absorbent walls in office cubicles

Usually soft, sound absorbent acoustical tiles are used on the ceilings of such rooms. The partition walls also often contain a fabric to absorb sounds. Finally, a rug will add to the reduction of extraneous noise.

A factory environment is another issue, because it is very difficult if not impossible to add sound absorbing materials. In some factories, workers must use earplugs to suppress the equipment noise.

Outside noises

Outside noises mainly concern your living environment, but they can also be large, noisy equipment outside an office building. Using walls that can prevent sounds from entering the building or room is the most common method of suppressing outside noises. Unfortunately, noise-insulating walls are not that effective.

In an apartment building, the walls may be so thin that you can hear conversations of the people in the next apartment. Even if they walls provide better sound-proofing, the low-frequency bass sounds from a stereo will still pass through the walls.

Scientists have been working on electronic, active noise cancellation devices that can be put on walls to completely stop sounds from passing through them. Unfortunately, that acoustical science has not yet been perfected.

(See Active Noise Cancellation for more information.)

Summary

Acoustics in buildings concerns controlling the quality and amount of sound inside a building. It is used in concert halls, auditoriums and lecture halls to improve the quality of the sounds. Acoustics is also used in office buildings to eliminate echoes and noise. It is also used to suppress sound coming from outside the building, such as in apartments.


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