Acoustics, A Quality-of-Place Factor

This article is part of a continuing series of articles dealing with quality-of-place. See our January 2003 issue for a discussion of quality-of-place and why it is a key success factor for leisure facilities.

A Fun & Relaxing Leisure Facility, an Oxymoron

A leisure facility owner would never consider having a heating and air conditioning system for their facility that failed to keep guests comfortable. If guests are too hot or too cold, they sure won't hang around to spend their money and will probably not return. However, when it comes to acoustics, most facilities do just the opposite. They have excessively noisy facilities that make it difficult, if not impossible to have conversations. In most leisure facilities, one of the prime motivators for visits is socialization. Socialization requires conversation. The noise level also has a direct psychological and emotional impact on the guests and staff. Loud noises induce physiological stress in the body, increasing adrenaline flow, blood pressure, and heart rate. This stress is unconscious, but nevertheless directly impacts guests and their enjoyment. It doesn't make sense to stress out guests when they are coming to relax and enjoy themselves.

The noise in many indoor centers often exceeds the sound from a jack hammer from only 50 feet away.

The White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group has conducted extensive research with consumers and guests of existing indoor leisure facilities. The research includes mail, phone and intercept surveys, and focus groups of both children and adults. These people, in response to open-ended questions with no prompting or prior mention of acoustics, often mention loud and irritating sound levels as something they dislike about the facility they visited. And children mentioned the excessive noise level as often as adults.

We have also surveyed sound levels in indoor entertainment centers throughout the country. In most, the constant background sound level is in the 80-90 decibel range or even higher, and on top of that, the centers are very reverberant. Keep in mind that 85 decibels is the maximum sustained sound level permitted by OSHA for workers over a typical workday without management having to provide hearing protection. People build cars in factories that are less noisy than most entertainment centers. Being in most centers is like being inside a pinball machine. Sure there's lots of energy from the noise, but it sure doesn't end up being an enjoyable experience.

Listen for those Saber Tooth Tigers

Humans' reaction to noise all started back in caveman days, when loud sounds often meant the rapid approach of a huge, hungry, big-toothed critter. The human body through evolution has programmed itself to fight or flee after loud sounds. Humans who weren't stressed by noise probably became kibble for a T-Rex; eventually, only people with the sound-activated stress response dominated the gene pool. Today, saber tooth tigers are gone, but that involuntary response lingers, causing us to jump at loud noises like car horns or sirens.

So would you want to spend the day in an environment that generated the fight-or-flight response? Of course not, and neither do your guests. Those that do stick it out are stressed, irritable, and grumpy. They don't have fun and they don't plan to return. And your staff members, who have to stay, are just as miserable. Service, productivity, and even safety deteriorate.

One of the main reasons people visit leisure centers is to socialize with the friends or family members who come with them. Children accompanied by parents constitute the majority of indoor leisure center guests. Most of the parents are Baby Boomers in their 30s to late 40s. Men, who lose their hearing faster than women, already are having a rough time making out speech in loud rooms or environments where noise reverberates, bouncing around and not being absorbed. Women become uncomfortable with sounds about half as loud as men prefer. This means that what is comfortable for men who make up the vast majority of designers and center owners, is in fact uncomfortable and stressful for the primary decision makers of whether the family visits, mom. The problem is even more severe for elderly guests such as grandparents. If a child has to scream to Grandma that he has to . . . well . . . go, the value of the visit is diminished. And few things are more frustrating to staff and guests than to have to strain to understand what someone else is saying. If that someone is a performer or animatronic character, you've lost the entertainment impact you paid for. Bottom line: Noise costs money.

So What You Gotta Do Is Get This Giant Muffler...

It's never too late to improve the acoustics in a leisure center, but it sure costs less and works better when good acoustics are built into the original design. Good acoustical design is not necessarily expensive. If acoustics are integrated into the design from the very beginning, from conceptual design to construction documents, it rarely will add more than two percent to the total cost of a project. After the fact, you can count on spending more to accomplish much less.

The four primary acoustical design issues that affect indoor facilities are:

  • the zoning of areas of noise-generating components and activities from quiet areas;
  • the control of noise from one area to the next;
  • the acoustic or reverberant build-up of sound; and
  • the control of noise at its source.

Typically, there are two major sources of noise in a project. The first is mechanical, including games, rides and attractions, and the building's mechanical systems. The second is human, the noise generated by the guests. Guest noise is good, provided the space is not too reverberant. Mechanical noise is bad. Of course, some of the fun is the sound of the mechanical bells and whistles, or the clatter of the roller coaster coming down the track. What's important is not to eliminate mechanical noise, but to keep it at a low volume through control of the sound level at the source and through sound-reduction systems. With a proper balance and level of sound, guests won't succumb to noise fatigue and stress, and will stay longer, have more fun, and be more likely to return.

Good Acoustics Equals Profits

We are proud of the careful attention we pay to acoustics in our design work for clients and how it contributes to our clients' increased profits. We have even received recognition for how acoustically enjoyable the centers we produce are,

Alan Hess, the architectural critic for the San Jose Mercury News, wrote the following about Bamboola, a project we designed and produced in California:

". . . Usually the entrepreneurs who create these places and services add value to make it worthwhile. At Bamboola, they add supervision by khaki-clad staffers, a variety of choices for different ages, an educational overlay and a comfortable place for adults. . . This is where Bamboola's well-crafted design makes it stand out from places with similar activities. . . Bamboola's designers, White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group of Kansas City, create a place where adults can take their kids without being driven crazy by the noise, the dreary "are we having fun yet?" atmosphere and the lack of places to sit down.

"This is smart. This is very smart. They did this through careful attention to basic design.

"On a small scale, Bamboola did what Walt Disney did 42 years ago. Walt Disney took the hopelessly tawdry, sleazy amusement parks of the 1950s and reinvented them as clean, comfortable, wholesome Disneyland. [White Hutchinson] took the tawdry, noisy fun centers of the 1990s, added a dash of the children's discovery museum, and created Bamboola. . . . It has taken the pleasure and comfort of its customers into account with intelligence and care. It uses design to make a better product and a better environment."