By Selina Denman
Acoustics were ignored in the building of a new auditorium for the Dubai Women’s college. Acoulite had the solution, cid discovers.
It was four years ago that Jamie Stewart, dean of business, education
and learning resources at the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) in Dubai, stepped
into the college’s new 1,000-person auditorium – and realised that he had a big
problem on his hands.
The auditorium was a key component of a million dirham extension
of HCT’s Dubai Women’s College campus, but as Stewart stood on the stage and clapped
his hands in an impromptu sound test, he discovered that its acoustic properties
were far from ideal.
As the auditorium began to host events, the extent of the problem
became increasingly apparent. “When you were standing on the stage and you were
speaking to the audience, it sounded like you were in a big barn or warehouse,”
“Speakers couldn’t really understand what was happening. They
knew something was wrong and could hear their voice coming back to them and echoing
all over the place, and it was very distracting. We could adjust our sound system
to compensate for that, but we could only go so far.”
The acoustics became particularly troublesome when someone in
the audience tried to communicate with the person on stage. Any kind of Q&A
session would leave the speaker looking largely nonplussed, as they were unable
to hear and fully comprehend the questions being asked. “If you were in the audience,
you understood completely, but the person at the front couldn’t hear properly,”
Things came to a head last year, when the college hosted the
Festival of Thinkers, a high-profile conference that gathers Nobel Laureates and
other reputable speakers. “We had a few Nobel Laureates on the stage, alongside
other distinguished speakers, as part of a six-member panel. Finally, one of the
members of the panel was asked a question and he ended up saying: ‘I’m not going
to answer any more questions because I can’t understand what people are asking and
I can’t even understand what the people on the panel beside me are saying’,” Stewart
recalled. “We knew something needed to be done.”
By this time, Stewart had already spoken to a series of specialists,
in the hope that they could offer some kind of solution to his acoustical woes.
One suggestion was that protrusions be added to the ceiling above the stage, and
that the stage’s hardwood floor be covered with carpeting.
“So, we put the carpet down, and we shut the facility down for
another three or four months as they redid the ceiling. They opened it up again,
and we went and stood on the stage and clapped, and the problem hadn’t really been
solved. After that we continued to have groups come and talk to us about whether
it was the ceiling or the cladding or the sound system, but we were still talking
to people who were guessing at how to solve the problem,” he said.
“I didn’t have any confidence that we wouldn’t just spend another
pile of money and end up with the same problem. Another issue was that some of the
solutions being suggested were very expensive and involved going back and redesigning
the whole facility.”
Eventually, Stewart came into contact with Acoulite, a Dubai-based
supplier of acoustic and lighting solutions, and for the first time, felt a sense
of confidence. “We felt like we had finally found someone who could solve the problem.”
According to Martin Grove, account manager at Acoulite, 90% of
projects undertaken by the company’s acoustic division are retro-fits, where a space
has to be revisited because proper
attention wasn’t paid to acoustics in the first place. “Obviously, with acoustics,
it is harder to build it into a retro-fit and for a client to find the budget. So
we are trying to work with designers and fit-out companies to show them how you
can build this kind of thing into the design.”
One explanation behind the HCT auditorium’s poor acoustics could
be that the initial acoustic study, completed before the facility was built, may
have been conducted from a purely construction, rather than architectural, point
of view. “The study may have looked at the actual foundations and concrete structure
of that building, before they put the furnishings in. From an acoustic point of
view, they would perhaps have looked at the sound coming out of the building, rather
than what was happening within it,” said Grove.
“A lot of architects and consultants work on the acoustics of
the actual structure and whether that is going to keep sound in there, rather than
what’s happening within the actual space, and that’s sometimes where the confusion
arises,” he detailed.
One problem with the design of the HCT auditorium is that sound
waves were bouncing off the walls and weren’t being absorbed. Acoulite’s answer
was to cover the auditorium’s 580m² back wall with its Reverb absorption solution.
“The idea is that with acoustics, you have different ratings.
What we’ve put in here is a .95 solution, which basically means that 95% of a sound
wave that hits that back wall is absorbed, while 5% gets left in the auditorium.
The idea is to absorb sound as quickly as possible which, in an auditorium, is what
you want to do. And because you are absorbing the sound quicker, the clarity becomes
better,” Grove explained.
Reverb consists of a base of absorption foam that is placed directly
onto the selected surface and is topped with a fabric that can be imprinted with
any design. It is this in-built flexibility that makes it such an effective solution,
said Grove, but it also presented a whole new set of questions for the HCT. “You
can have any graphic that you want, from a portrait of a person to a landscape,
to a solid colour,” said Grove.
“We got our graphic designer involved, and we took a few different
scenarios to our director,” Stewart added. “But, ultimately, we didn’t really want
to disturb the aesthetics of the building. So we asked if we could just match the
paneling that already existed. As we know now, that is no trivial task – you have
cloth versus wood and you have to try and make them look the same.”
The project was completed in September and in mid-October, the
auditorium hosted an important graduation event. “For the first time, you could
sit on the stage and intelligibly figure out where the sound was coming from,” said
Stewart. “Before, it was just loud and confusing. Now, you actually feel like there
is some warmth and clarity to the sound. There is almost a humanity to it.”