We rarely describe architecture in terms of sound. It is as if this sense has no bearing on experience of the buildings we produce. Yet the new robust (over-designed and clumsy) details that are confusing construction suggest that sound has a major bearing on our enjoyment of architecture; a case of regulations highlighting the problem but, unfortunately, offering the wrong solution.
Owners and occupiers of buildings, particularly dwellings, often contend that sound has the greatest potential to ruin their lives. Lifts can be irritating when broken or abused, but sound is critical. This situation, of course, is screamingly obvious during construction, when site noise becomes a major irritant to neighbours.
It is no surprise, therefore, that we are currently challenged by ever-tougher acoustic standards. The problem is that they do not actually address the problem. Structureborne sound is an issue, as is impact sound, as is sound transmission through walls. But dealing with one issue - neighbours - does not solve the problem of acoustic intrusion from outside. I do not propose a flurry of new regulations for the acoustic performance of glazing units, their frames and the junction of frame and wall. Regulations rarely solve, generally serving merely to contain.
Anyway, despite noise, we like opening windows because they give us the perception that we have the control of, and connection to, the bigger environment. That is why airconditioned buildings still have opening lights, even though they deny the sealed logic of the system. It is also one of the reasons displacement air conditioning is on the rise:
yes, it is both good value and low maintenance but it also functions well when the seal is broken by having the windows open. The need to open a window is so fundamentally entrenched in our psyche that, on a hot summer's day, people will open a window despite being advised that this will actually raise the air temperature. Indeed, even when temperatures rise, they will still 'feel' cooler.
So the solution to noise pollution is neither to design ever more complex window seals nor to re-educate the psyche. For proof of this, look at what U-values and SAP ratings have done for the window frame. In Germany, a leading nation in the eradication of anything that might pollute anything else, the grand research project of half a millennium of architecture - the eradication of the window frame - has been rejected as an irrelevance. In parts of Germany, glass is but a minor component of the 'window':
efficient thermally driven window-frame sections are the architectural idea. In this country it is going the same way.
Forget Robert Smythson at Hardwick Hall ('more glass than wall'); ignore the refinement of the Georgians and their impossibly slight window frames; condemn the pane/frame inventions of Paxton and his Crystal Palace;
despise Mies and the Modern Movement missionaries with their dreams of a light-filled world: thermally broken sections are the new architectural idea. If that is what regulating energy loss does for the architecture of light, I dread to think what regulation of sound insulation will do for the architecture of skin.
The correct design solution is to deal with the source: learn not how to keep noise out but how to keep it down. In schools, by omitting a door or connecting a classroom, you not only improve spatial connection but also encourage students to respect the aural needs of their peers. It would be interesting to examine the potential impact on architecture were the key spaces of all buildings, not just of concert halls, to be discussed in conception, and reviewed in occupation, in terms of their acoustic as well as their spatial characteristics;
buildings to be heard but not seen.