Talking to architects

Too often, the teams of people responsible for designing a space end up in a polarised debate over whose discipline should take priority. In this case it’s important to avoid the confrontation of technobabble vs psychobabble, and learn how to communicate properly.

The architect wants to lead the project, the acousticians demand changes in angles and materials and the systems designers insist on certain technology no matter what. Too often, the teams of people responsible for designing a space end up in a polarised debate over whose discipline should take priority. The architect wants to lead the project, the acousticians demand changes in angles and materials and the systems designers insist on certain technology no matter what. Of course, each has a legitimate point to make in the narrow view, but long term success of a project, whether it’s an entire building or just a boardroom, will depend more on the level of communication among the parties than any other single factor.

Since the reality is that most integrators are brought into a project by a consultant or an architect, it is incumbent upon them to understand the value of communicating with the architect and his client in a way that ensures mutual goals are met and avoids any schism in the relationship.

Cory Covington is a Senior Designer at Gensler, one of the world’s largest non-engineering architectural firms and he has found that beyond technical fluency, the greatest skill integrators and acoustical consultants can bring to the table is communication. “It’s critical to communicate the issues up front between an architect and a consultant in regard to client desires and the architect’s goals,” says Covington. “It’s also necessary to communicate clearly and in a positive manner with them on things like materials, design and timing to help make everything work.”

Indeed, many factors go into the success of a project: architectural design, building materials, acoustic design, acoustic treatment, technology design, population of the space and how it’s going to be used, as well as technology integration just to name a few.

The first phases of communication must begin at the earliest possible stages of planning, from the budgeting on forward. It would be difficult, for example, for an integrator to get changes in materials for acoustical purposes, or to alter sight lines or lighting for visual purposes during the actual installation phase if it was going to affect the budgetary structure. Not only is it important to get in as early as possible, but to communicate needs in a way that allows the architect to maintain the decision making authority. So, rather than say, “You can’t use marble floors with glass walls because it will sound bad and the light will wash out the screens you want there,” the better approach is, “if you want to use these materials, here is what it will sound like and this is what the visual impact will be.” Then the architect can make his decisions based on expert input.

So what goes into acoustical and visual design that has a real impact on the decision-making and the communication among the parties involved?

Whether it’s the acoustical or visual aspects of a design, a critical factor in the successful relationship is defining what each stage of development is and how its success will be measured and then, how to communicate those results to the entire team. This will usually be done through the architect. An example of this demonstrates why it’s important to discuss things at the earliest stage and to be open about needs and responsibilities. In measuring acoustical parameters, for example, is there budget for complete analysis of a space? Is there money available for software and pre-modelling of a space so that the design can be altered, when it’s still on paper, to accommodate different materials or shapes or surfaces? It’s important for all parties to be clear on this up front.

Also important in this regard is a clear understanding of usage of the space, its application, and how big audiences will be when it’s finished. If it’s a boardroom, typically housing relatively few people, but a reliable number, then the issues are clear, whereas if it’s an auditorium, it may be half empty sometime and full at other times, causing a change in the acoustics in the room. This may, in turn, cause a consultant to recommend different materials for furnishings and carpet, different absorptive materials for the walls and floors and even a different shape of the room. None of this would be known early on if pre-modelling is not done. Of course there is a certain level of expertise that can be brought to a project without this, but the precision and early problem solving software allows saves money long term and makes for a better end result. Still, it will not happen if the architect is not made aware of its need at the beginning and therefore included in the budget. Don’t assume the architect understands the impact of furnishings and materials on acoustics or sight lines. The only way to get these issues included in the early stages is to communicate with the architect on these needs.

Using software to predict room behaviour is an example of early involvement of acoustical considerations in an architectural design. In the real world, most architects and designers don’t think of either video or acoustical issues until a space is built, which can mean there are times when changes cannot be made, or at least will provide only a partial and/or expensive solution.

By infusing the early design discussions with issues important to the integrator, it becomes easier for the integrator to communicate with the architect at all subsequent stages. From the architect’s perspective, Cory Covington at Gensler suggests that it’s a good idea for an architect to consider acoustics early on, but to be sure what level of involvement is needed beforehand. “There are a lot of positives to including acoustic design early,” he says, “but be sure exactly what you need. If it’s an event space or restaurant where music and audio systems will be important, then you may need an acoustical consultant, which will bring up the cost of the design, but likely save you money long term. Those early decisions will affect construction, materials and even design choices if you need to use different materials or shapes to accommodate acoustical issues.”

So far, most of the discussion has centred on ways to deal with architects regarding materials, furnishings and other design issues that are ultimately the responsibility of the integrator to implement. Another aspect of a completed project, and a way to put an architect as ease with an integrator’s early involvement, is to discuss the impact that audio and video technology will have on the design.

Matt Czyzewski is Vice President of Technical Operations at Biamp Systems, manufacturer of advanced digital processors including the AudiaFLEX. AudiaFLEX often serves as the nerve centre to audio systems allowing control and monitoring of audio systems in projects that involve the sorts of design teams alluded to here. Czyzewski notes that when addressing the technology, there’s more than simply a monetary consideration, there are performance and operational efficiency concerns as well. “If acoustical design is discussed with the architect up front, that will impact the quality and durability of the audio system itself. In the instances where those discussions take place, there’s a good chance the sound system will last 10 years or more as far as acoustic performance goes. If not done early, you usually have to go out and hire people to change it, and it’s not uncommon to go through several people trying to solve the problem. This can result in bringing in new equipment and people to solve a problem, when in fact, it’s not the people or the equipment, but the room that’s causing the problem.”

When that happens, it usually means that, in the beginning, communication channels were not open. The parties got caught between technobabble and psychobabble, polarising the discussion, when simple communication skills would have solved the problem. Beyond room design, video design, acoustical planning and technological innovation, the ability to acknowledge the value of everyone’s input and to communicate issues in a positive way is just as important as any other skill.

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