Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Can You Hear Me Now?

In the mid-1990’s, our office had quite a bit of work in northeastern Pennsylvania for a single client, and I found myself spending a lot of time in that area.  On one occasion, I was with Gregg Scott and, after a full day of meetings in several different locations, he was obliged to call on the administrator of one of the completed facilities in the area with “acoustical issues” in their dining room.  Since we were in his car, I was obliged as well.

The dining room was impressive, one of the nicest I’ve seen us do to this day.  It was very well appointed and the detailing was tremendous.  The problem was related to the shape of the ceiling – it was a large barreled vault.  The administrator insisted that we dine with her to see, or rather hear, the problem first hand.  We were seated with residents who were nothing but polite, and who almost apologetically conceded that there was a problem.  It turns out that the hard surface of the barrel vault was reflecting background noises to one’s ear so much so that it was nearly impossible to hear conversation directed from across the table.

After dinner, Gregg and I went from table to table, introducing ourselves as the architects of their noisy dining room.  It was the first of many humbling experiences I would encounter on the job, but most of the residents were gracious and congratulated us for the otherwise wonderful design.  There was one noticeable exception; a retired engineer.

“I am an engineer, and you can’t fix this!” he reprimanded us.  I took the attack personally and told him, in my head of course, that turning off his hearing aid would fix it.  I was much younger then, less level headed.  I am not sure what Gregg was thinking, but he maintained his composure and expressed his regrets, but assured the man that a satisfactory solution would indeed be accomplished.  The man glibly wished us luck, and we retreated to our office in Lancaster.

With the consultation of Howard Kingsbury the acoustician, we crafted a series of curved, sound absorptive panels affixed to the existing hard ceiling and sound baffles for the high walls on either side of the barrel vault.  Although I have yet to dine in the space again, I understand that our solution did indeed bring the sound reflectivity down to an acceptable level.  Although the whole experience was truly humbling, I couldn’t help feeling a little proud of the fact that the next meal the crotchety engineer might eat in that room would be crow.