CAE Conference Overview: Acoustics, Light and Contrast
Published: 3 Oct 2016
The Centre for Accessible Environments (CAE) brought together lighting and acoustics experts for its first-ever conference: Acoustics, Light and Contrast at the Saint-Gobain Innovation Centre on Monday 26th September. Speakers explored the importance of effective use of acoustics, lighting and contrast within design to achieve an inclusive environment, and the need for best practice guidelines as a basic starting point for creating places that people want to spend time in.
Hans Haenlein MBE, an architect and academic with over 40 years’ experience, suggested that over stimulation through technology is dulling our senses, particularly in children and young people. By ‘senses’, Hans refers to the five most familiar – sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing – as well as balance, warmth, speech, thought and a sense of self and movement. Humankind is now at a crossroads, he says, due to the impact of technology on the brain and our senses, which poses a critical issue for educators. Over 70% of us are disabled and disadvantaged by the physical environment at some stage in our lives. Why, then, is society concerned with ‘disability’, rather than differentiated ability, when such a high proportion of the population could be considered disabled? “There is now an overwhelming need to refocus our perception in order to achieve a more viable balance of human values.” Sharing case studies of his own acoustic work in schools and performance venues, he encourages architects to expand beyond a focus on the visual aspects of design.
Elettra Bordonaro PHD, Founder of Light Follows Behaviour asked “How can our designs respond to the challenges of complexity and diversity?” So-called ‘minorities’ actually make up a large proportion of societies all over the world, therefore it is important to design with diversity and inclusivity in mind. A variety of social, economic or physical barriers can prevent community participation and current community consultations often fall short of genuine involvement – it is crucial to involve everyone in the design process. Elettra has put this theory into practice through her recent community lighting project Southlight in South Providence, Rhode Island, one of the most deprived areas in East coast USA. The project helped build relationships between architecture students and local residents to produce an innovative, multipurpose community venue which doubles as a public lighting solution.
Paige Hodsman, Concept Developer for Offices, Ecophon Saint Gobain, demonstrated how linking acoustic design, user needs, the physical space and the activities taking place there can achieve a more user friendly space that is still visually stimulating. Our spaces are getting noisier, which has a significant impact on stress, concentration and memory. For example, according to Paige, hospital noise levels are usually double those recommended by the World Health Organisation; and research suggests that that high noise levels actually increases our perception of pain, decreases motivation, and disrupts sleep. This poses significant implications for hospital patients’ ability to recover. Broader awareness is needed about the damaging impact of noise, she suggests, so that more people will be compelled to create comfortable spaces for all.
Peter Raynham, MSc Light and Lighting Course Director at UCL, followed Paige’s presentation, starting with, “everything we consider in acoustics has an analogue in lighting.” He stressed that lighting standards are only a starting point for improving the accessibility of a space: “a standard is not a tool to meet good practice, but instead is used to prevent bad practice.” He gave an overview of the utility of lighting standards and policy, paying close attention to the impact of these standards in real terms. For example, using photographs of the same alley lit in two different ways, Peter explained how even when standards are met, lighting does not always serve its intended purpose. Lighting, he says, should enable people to safely and easily move around and to recognise other people’s faces. The way that light is directed at reflective surfaces impacts how a person enjoys a space (eg. being able to see what you want to see without glare or discomfort), and good lighting should “lift the spirits”.
Tony Ball, Technical Services Manager at the BBC, further emphasized the key role of lighting in the workplace, and highlighted the need to refresh lighting sources in order to modernize buildings. With responsibility for a diverse range of BBC buildings across the UK, Tony has experienced working with dynamic new buildings, as well as older and more complex or challenging properties. His team have recently compiled a lighting specification which provides designers, suppliers and contractors with performance criteria to be met or considered for all aspects of a lighting design or luminaire replacement programme. This specification aims to help combat some of the dated lighting solutions (eg. 500 lux levels are practical in a paper-based work environment, but an office lit by computer and television screens may not require such high lighting levels), and requires all new luminaires to be LED in order to take advantage of increased longevity.
Gary Rubin PhD, Professor at UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, presented collaborative research that examines the role of contrast in object identification in relation to various types and levels of visual impairment. Amongst findings of the 10-year participatory study, the Salisbury Eye Evaluation Project (SEE), Gary found that people’s ability to use the stairs is impacted more by their sensitivity to contrast than by their visual acuity. He concluded that the importance of contrast for some activities, such as reading, is obvious. However, contrast also plays a critical but less obvious role in other visual activities; such as visually guided navigation. Many people with vision impairments are limited by low contrast between surfaces in public places or their own homes, therefore planners and designers need to keep in mind that high contrast is essential for achieving maximum accessibility.
Shane Cryer, Concept Developer for Education, Ecophon Saint Gobain, explained the impact of acoustics within learning environments, and stressed the crucial importance of good acoustic design within educational buildings. Lighting, air temperature, acoustics, air quality and ergonomics are five fundamental factors which make a good learning environment; yet architects more often focus on form, light, colour and textures. Furthermore, architects need to design for children – who can hear frequencies that adults can’t. Showing a video of a balloon being popped in a classroom with different variations of acoustic design, Shane demonstrated the crucial difference that good acoustics can have on a learning environment. Implementing the Special Educational Needs (SEN) Acoustic Standard can be a challenge, but evidence proves that any student working in an environment meeting these standards can memorise and learn both better and faster. Therefore a higher standard of acoustic design benefits all children, not just children with SEN.