dBx Acoustics

What Is An Acoustic Consultant, Anyway?

All of the technical staff at dBx Acoustics, and at other consultancies, would describe themselves as acoustic consultants. Broadly speaking, we would define an acoustic consultant as a qualified specialist. They may work with a range of clients on the control of acoustic conditions in buildings and in the environment.

That may seem vague, but as we explain in this blog, we’re not deliberately keeping our role a secret!

So come on then – what do you actually DO?

No matter what sort of project we’re working on, the work we do boils down to the practical application of maths and physics to solve problems. When we aren’t out there measuring noise, we’ll be working to predict how it will behave. Or, using our knowledge and expertise to write reports for clients, explaining how they can get the results they want.

Where it becomes confusing is in the range of projects we work on. Whilst some consultants are specialists in a particular area (concert halls, environmental noise etc), many of us are generalists, able to turn our expertise to almost any project you can imagine!

Generally speaking, much of our work can be divided into either building acoustics, or environmental noise. Let’s look as some examples:

Building Acoustics

Building acoustics is – as you might have guessed – all about buildings! We can:

  • Calculate reverberation time in rooms and advise on how to control it.
  • Recommend materials for partitions to get a good level of privacy and separation between spaces.
  • Advise on what the external walls and roof should be composed of to keep out noise (or to keep IN noise, in the case of a bar for example!)

That’s all there is to it! The principles behind this are the same whether you want to design a recording studio, a school or an apartment block. The expertise in consultancy comes in understanding appropriate design targets to set for the specific use of a space or building, and in knowing what constructions and materials can be used to achieve them.

You can calculate the amount of acoustic treatment needed to control reverberation within a room. However, knowing where to place it within that room for best effect takes experience. We also have to think about the routes by which sound may bypass our carefully constructed designs. It can, for example, leak through at junctions between surfaces, or where pipes pass through a wall. We work with architects to make sure that these possible flanking routes are appropriately controlled.

Environmental Noise

All major building projects come up against the Local Planning Authority. A good LPA will look for a noise impact assessment. This work lets us quantify the existing noise climate, we look at:

  • how the proposed building will affect the acoustic environment for neighbours,
  • and how to design the building to best control noise.

Other environmental issues we might be consulted on are: noise impact for proposed new roads, railways, industrial estates, or machinery. We’ve been asked to think about how emergency helicopter flights can affect the sleep of residents (and hospital patients!), and to comment on how old industrial buildings can be turned into nightclubs without disturbing the neighbours.

But that’s not all…

Goodness no. We can find ourselves carrying out noise as work assessments in factories, troubleshooting ‘mystery noise’ issues in the community, and specifying noise control for building services plant both for the comfort of building occupants, and for the benefit of the neighbours.

I’ve worked on concert halls, schools, corporate HQ buildings and Government buildings. But, I’ve also done noise impact assessments for a cattery, measured noise levels within an underground sewage pumping station, and tried to predict the effect of noise on roosting bats close to a proposed sports pitch. One thing you can say about our job is that it’s never, ever, dull.

How do you become an acoustic consultant?

Traditionally, acoustic consultants have held a relevant degree from either Salford or Southampton University. The entry routes are finally starting to evolve, however, and we are seeing more applicants who hold the Institute of Acoustics Diploma. We hope that in 2017 we will see the first apprenticeships in acoustics!

Whatever entry route you choose, you’ll need to have strong maths and physics skills, but also good written and spoken English. A key part of our job is translating the technical into the useful for our clients. So, as a consultant, it’s no good being technically brilliant if you can’t then convey your findings!

It’s always worth getting some experience to be sure that you like the role. Many consultancies offer paid work experience, from a few weeks, up to a year-long placement. Don’t expect to find yourself working on anything glamorous on your first day, though – it’s likely you’ll be the one sent out on night time noise surveys and asked to crunch through some of the more standard calculations on a project.

What is a typical day for an acoustic consultant?

A consultant will typically be working on 5-10 projects at the same time, so needs to be good at balancing the demands of clients with prioritising deadlines. Even with clear project timelines, it’s not always possible to predict when an urgent request for information will arrive. So, we need to be adaptable to get things done! If we aren’t out on site carrying out a survey, doing testing, or in a design meeting with a client, you’ll find us at our desks.

The software we use

We still do a lot of calculations and data processing using spreadsheets. However, we also use software such as Odeon to look at room acoustics, and Soundplan for environmental noise predictions. We tend to resort to the computer modelling packages when a simple calculation won’t be sufficient to answer our questions. Although technology is always improving, a computer model can be time consuming and accuracy is vital. Sometimes using a little maths and a spreadsheet can give a more robust result.

You’d be forgiven for mistaking our office for an architectural practice as we rely on drawings of sites and projects we’re working on. There are plenty of A1 printouts scattered around, along with close up details of building elements that we are reviewing. The ability to read and understand architectural drawings is a skill that we all have to learn. Some find it easier than others to translate a 2D drawing into a 3D imagination. BIM and the increasing use of SketchUp by architects is making this easier, but often when we are involved in a project, detailed models are not developed. This means we’re working alongside the designers as they begin to develop details.

What else do you do?

A small practice, like dBx Acoustics, doesn’t spend all it’s time working on projects. We write fee proposals for new work, attend networking events, and of course, work on our marketing and social media. Someone has to walk the dog, and maintain the equipment to ensure it’s kept in calibration. We also keep a number of records to support our UKAS and ISO (9001 / 14001) accreditations and so have regular meetings to ensure we are up to date with our obligations there. Of course, there’s contracts and invoicing, as well as the day to day running of a small office to contend with!

Thanks, but I’d rather do something that changes the world.

We think that we do change the world for people – every day. During birth, death, and medical treatments in between, good acoustic conditions help people to feel more rested and to achieve better recovery outcomes. At school, kids do better when the acoustics are right. Similarly, in the workplace, we are more productive in a good acoustic environment. We all need a good night’s sleep, and that’s much easier when noise from neighbours and the exterior is reduced. You may not realise it, but acoustic consultants touch upon just about every stage of your life.

We hope this blog has given you some insight into what it means to be an acoustic consultant, day to day. If you’ve worked with us previously, perhaps this has given you an idea for other types of projects we could help you on! And if you’re not sure whether an acoustic consultant can help you – well, give us a call. The answer is quite likely to be ‘yes’!

dBx Case Studies - Education

There is a proven link between acoustic conditions in schools and educational outcomes. Building Bulletin 93 (BB93) mandates minimum standards in primary and secondary schools for noise levels and room acoustics, as well as acoustic separation between teaching spaces.

The dBx Acoustics team can help you comply with BB93, but our expertise goes even further. We have extensive experience designing environments for pupils with additional needs, including autism and hearing loss, as well as higher education and noisier, practical workshop spaces.

New and refurbished school buildings must comply with Building Regulation E4 and the acoustic performance standards of Building Bulletin 93 (BB93) ‘Acoustic Design of Schools’. Whilst BB93 is not mandatory for higher education establishments, it typically forms the basis of the initial design for such establishments, with modifications as appropriate to allow for specific HE uses. Where projects are being designed with BREEAM in mind, credits HEA05 and POL05 are also relevant.

There are a number of different acoustic aspects which come together to ensure that acoustic conditions in schools are appropriate to support learning, and it’s so important to get it right – studies have shown that educational attainment can be directly correlated to acoustic conditions.

Our involvement often begins at the planning stage with an environmental noise survey, which allows us to advise on ventilation and glazing requirements to control noise ingress to the building. If mechanical ventilation is proposed, if there is an external MUGA, or if community use is proposed, the noise survey also allows noise emission limits to be set to ensure that existing neighbours are not adversely affected by noise.

Internal ambient noise levels in teaching spaces are also affected by mechanical ventilation, and we work with the M&E consultant to specify appropriate noise control measures, such as silencers.
When it comes to the design of the building itself, BB93 requires us to specify partitions and floors to control airborne and impact sound transmission between teaching spaces, based on their relative sensitivity and noise generation characteristics. The detailing of junctions and sealing of any services penetrations is critical in maintaining acoustic separation between adjacent rooms.

Having provided a suitably quiet teaching environment which won’t be adversely affected by activity in other classrooms, our focus moves to room acoustics and control of reverberation. Often this is as simple as specifying the acoustic performance of a suspended ceiling, but for large spaces such as Assembly Halls and Sports Halls, we undertake acoustic modelling to optimise the specification and placement of acoustic finishes. Where an exposed soffit is preferred, we calculate the specification and quantity of finishes, such as acoustic rafts and wall panels to control room acoustic conditions.

Finally, we carry out pre-completion acoustic testing on-site to ensure that all of the acoustic criteria for the project have been complied with on-site.

The dBx Acoustics team also have a particular interest in acoustic design for SEN schools, particularly schools catering to neurodiverse pupils. BB93 specifies design criteria for “children with special hearing and communication needs”, which is intended to include autism, ADHD and auditory processing difficulties, and assists in providing an environment in which speech transmission is clear and effective. The standard does not, however, consider the other acoustic aspects of school life which affect such pupils, including auditory sensitivities and the need to provide spaces to allow a retreat from the noise and bustle of daily school life. Our team’s direct and personal experiences of neurodiversity, both as parents and as individuals, helps us to understand the requirements of individual educational clients, and help guide the design of educational buildings to provide an acoustically diverse and appropriate environment.

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