Acoustical adaptations to help a nonprofit music school be a good neighbour
The Sarah McLachlan School of Music offers free instruction in musical instruments, performance and technology to young people who might otherwise lack access to music education. Originally an outreach program conceived and led by Canadian musician Sarah McLachlan, the School was formalized in 2011 and established its home base in Vancouver.
The School operates in a 16,000-square foot space on the second floor of a building in a densely populated city. The facility contains studios of various sizes, as well as a shared performance space located in the centre of the floor. Students use the studios to rehearse individually and in small groups, including on drum kits and other percussive instruments. The School engaged us to:
- deliver acoustic consulting services aimed at isolating sound in the studios, to let students rehearse without distraction from adjacent spaces; and
- propose noise control measures to support harmonious relations with its downstairs neighbours.
As a nonprofit, the School has limited resources. It was important that any adaptations we proposed were economical and, wherever possible, implementable by non-expert School volunteers.
We began by developing a detailed understanding of how the existing space performed with respect to noise and vibration. In addition to studying the building’s architectural drawings and consulting with the School’s leaders and other building occupants, we directly measured:
- background noise levels at various sites within the School’s space and in the occupied floor below, comparing these to generally acceptable noise criteria for similar spaces;
- how well existing measures isolated acoustic and amplified music;
- reverberation times (RT60) in the School’s studios and main performance space.
The School already had some noise isolation measures in place, such as suspended acoustic tiles on studio ceilings, carpeting on floors and acoustic seals around studio doors. Our measurements gave us insight into which noise control problems these features were addressing effectively and which required additional attention.
We identified a number of opportunities for upgrades. One area of particular concern for the School’s downstairs neighbours was a thumping sound that traveled through the floor. Although the studios were carpeted, the floors themselves were raised platforms above a concrete structure. This floor system transmitted percussive noise down to the first level of the building. We measured the floor/ceiling sound isolation to quantify the performance of the existing set-up. The most obvious way to improve floor/ceiling sound isolation would have required a floor retrofit that would have been difficult for the School to implement. As an alternative, we were able to propose some simple, usage-based solutions that were easy and inexpensive to adopt.
Other opportunities for noise mitigation included:
- enhanced perimeter seals and drop seals around doors, as well as adjustments to the acoustic properties of the doors themselves;
- additional acoustic panels on studio and performance space walls;
- a more comprehensive acoustic panel solution for a coffered concrete ceiling in the performance space, where performances were typically amplified;
- the closing of some openings in acoustic walls where sound was being transmitted directly;
- the creation of double acoustic walls between adjacent rehearsal studios;
- the hanging of theatre drapery around the perimeter wall of the main performance space to improve the consistency of the room’s acoustics.
Several of these mitigation strategies were adopted right away and measurably improved the space’s acoustic performance. Others are options that the School may pursue to enhance its space’s function over time.
Drawing on our initial work to fully understand the client’s context and constraints as well as their objectives, we were able to deliver a list of practical, cost-effective recommendations for sound isolation. Some were implemented quickly to address immediate concerns; others can be phased in over time to further enhance the space’s performance. We delivered our recommendations with clear, easy-to-follow directions that the School could pass along to their volunteer support team.
The School’s leaders were appreciative of the numerous hours of volunteer time our specialists devoted to the project; this contribution enabled the nonprofit to benefit from a more comprehensive review than their budget would otherwise have permitted. The evidence-based acoustical adaptations we proposed will let students continue to express themselves freely through music in a lively, comfortable space in the heart of the city.