How to create surroundings people feel connected to

Do you find some interiors alienating?

Have you noticed how many people are tapping away on their laptops in cafés – engrossed in what they are doing, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings?

Why is it that even though we may have comfortable and quiet areas in our homes to work in, many of us prefer to surround ourselves with the hubbub of a coffee bar?

It can’t just be the good coffee and cakes, can it?

Even if we’re not communicating with people, feeling a connection to them and our surroundings is important for our sense of well being.

A cafe or bar’s low-key buzz gives a background to our thoughts. We can relax and concentrate without feeling isolated.

Architecture critic Ian Nairn described the pubs he frequented as “places to shake off loneliness without being in anyone’s company.”

I recently had an unsettling reminder of this vital relationship with our surroundings when I stepped into a sound absorbent anechoic chamber at Salford University.

The chamber’s 360-degree foam walls, floor and ceiling take away all sound giving an immediate feeling of isolation. This feeling is so disorientating and claustrophobic it instinctively gave rise to a sense of panic.

Imagine floating in space, with no perspective or ability to gauge your physical surroundings. That’s what it was like. All I could hear was a slight high-pitched buzz. When I asked the acoustician whether he could hear it too, he pointed out that this was the sound of my own insides.

I experienced The Sound of Silence and it was not pleasant!

When you’re designing commercial or residential interiors, you’re looking for the right amount of sound – not too much and not too little.

Sound works in a similar way to water. You don’t want to have your morning shower poured over you in one go from a big bucket, do you? The distribution of water into myriad droplets makes it a pleasant experience.

To make your interiors as stimulating and enjoyable as a good shower, you need to scatter sound and reflect it back in smaller “droplets”. This reduces the negative impact of too much sound, without taking away the ambiance.

A combination of sound absorption and diffusion creates a balance that helps us feel grounded amongst the people and things that surround us.

This keeps the hum and buzz of a place and makes us feel connected, not isolated from our surroundings.

What different approaches do you use to reduce noise in your interior projects?

Let me know- I’d love to hear from you.

I’ll be in posting again soon with more thoughts and ideas on acoustic design.

Mm, now time for another coffee and a piece of cake…!

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