Design by Listening

Visualisation is a powerful tool when used to explore and communicate the reality of design proposals, particularly when integrated into live video footage or as a 360-degree view. Technology, and consequently expectations, advance quickly though; so we were intrigued to hear about Arup’s latest addition to the immersive experience arsenal – their SoundLab. Is ‘hearing is believing’ edging closer to the age old idiom ‘seeing is believing’?

We’d been told the SoundLab is used to simulate and explore 360 degree soundscapes, but how that would benefit Landscape Architects was a bit of a mystery. The sense of uncertainty persisted as we were ushered into the Lab to check out its capabilities.

Sitting in the central ‘sweet spot’ the contrast between the lively sound of birdsong and the blacked out room seemed disconcerting – that was until the track was switched off to be replaced by the far more eerie lack of sound. This somewhat unnerving ‘feeling’, that almost seemed like a pressure on or stuffiness within your ears, was created by the anechoic environment. The lab is structurally isolated to cut out sound interference from the surrounding office, services and the building itself, and the internal treatment kills reverberation. Fortunately, with five people in the room, the lack of sound was short-lived; but the absence of any form of echo remained.

Free from aural interference, 16 No. equidistant speakers are arranged in a sphere to produce a true three dimensional sound field, be it a recording of actual sound or a simulation. Arup’s Acoustic Consultant demonstrated how the sound produced by the same orchestra, playing the same music varies considerably between two different concert halls due to their spatial qualities and materiality. The next step is to model a proposed concert hall and simulate the resulting sound signature. This allows Clients and performers to hear the sound quality of the future space during the design process and test out variations.

Our ideas for applications were coming thick and fast, but for us the important question was does this ‘design by listening’ have a use beyond relatively controlled internal spaces? What happens when you step outside?

The soundscapes of external spaces are a complex mix of the natural, built and human environment that can be recorded by 3D microphones from a set location. This can be married together with an aural simulation, produced through computer modelling, to create an accurate soundscape resulting from a new road, flight path or windfarm. In this way the actual impact of proposals can be experienced objectively before it is physically created.

The audial experience of HS2 was an authoritative example of how Arup’s technology has been used to demonstrate the proposals to people living and working in close proximity to the proposed route. Using quantifiable information designers could explore the influence of mitigation measures and the public could experience the potential impacts for themselves. Coupled with verified visualisations the aural simulations objectively and accessibly communicated the HS2 proposals, cutting across ill-informed and inaccurate mock-ups that had raised apprehensions amongst adjacent communities.

From testing the impact of the equipment and layout during temporary events in Sadler’s Yard and outdoor performances at First Street, through to exploring varying built densities and building heights in new urban schemes such as Circle Square, or the ability of different glazing systems to reduce the noise of overhead aircraft at Airport City; we could immediately see the benefits of this technology. It enables designers to test, refine and communicate their proposal, cutting out yet one more aspect of uncertainty or risk; and yes, where possible, post completion measurements are taken to verify predictions and simulations.

The SoundLab’s capabilities are already wide-ranging and compelling, but more is yet to come. Rather than visualisations on an individual screen, Arup already plan to integrate 360 degree viewing for surround vision as well as surround sound. In-house modelling techniques are being refined to take further account of external features such as trees and shelter belts for auralisations of built-up outdoor environments. They are looking into vibration tables, and who knows, perhaps smellscapes are to follow (although I don’t think our suggestion went straight to the top of their R&D list). All these sensory aspects would further accentuate this immersive experience which is set to change how we consider the design, and raise the quality, of our future built environment.

You can experience SoundLab at the ‘Engineering the World: Ove Arup and the Philosophy of Total Design’ exhibition at the V&A Museum in London until 6th November 2016.