Worship space acoustic treatment is a common problem. Clarity of sound is paramount here, and these buildings are always in desperate need of it.
Obviously, a worship space is used for sermons and gatherings where speech intelligibility is critical, as well as live and recorded musical performances. Therefore, you must keep reverberation under control so as not to muffle speech, but you cannot eliminate it completely, or music would sound “dead.”
The irony of these facilities is that their architectural design is often counterproductive to this purpose.
High ceilings, open layouts, and many large, exposed windows and walls are commonplace in sanctuaries and fellowship halls. These features mimic the beautiful old churches that we know and love, but those buildings were made before AV equipment was available. Bare surfaces and ample open spaces in sanctuaries once helped amplify and carry sermons and music. But when used with today’s digital audio technology or applied to fellowship halls, these architectural elements create a lengthy reverberation time. Reverberation time, or RT 60, is the amount of time it takes for sound waves to stop reflecting around a room and fade completely. The longer it takes for each sound to end, the harder it is to understand subsequent sounds as they build up, making it uncomfortably loud.
A primer on worship space acoustic treatment options
To reduce reverberation time, sound absorbing materials are the answer. This includes acoustical foam, panels, curtains and anything soft or porous that will not reflect sound waves.
Acoustical panels [oftentimes] make the most sense for worship facilities because they look finished, are unobtrusive, and can be installed onto a wall or suspended horizontally or vertically from a ceiling, addressing problem areas.
When acoustical panels are suspended parallel to the ceiling they are called clouds; when they are suspended perpendicular they are called baffles.
These options do not have to impede the traditional design of a worship space. Sticking with a light color scheme similar to the walls and ceilings adds texture and a bit of interest without cluttering the existing layout. However, you are not condemned to this one aesthetic option. Acoustical treatment has become more designer-friendly in recent years.
Acoustical panels are now commonly custom-made in different shapes with countless colors and textures of fabric. They can have cutouts, be printed with graphics or photos, and be arranged in any way a designer can dream of.
So, while it is usually a first instinct to blend acoustical treatment into the background when retrofitting, designers have the freedom to create an acoustical treatment that stands out for the right reasons and improves the original design—instead of just preserving it.
1. Christ Church of Arlington, Arlington, Va.
Christ Church of Arlington devoted time every week to fellowship in its multipurpose room. “The problem was too much noise when the room was occupied – which is often,” says Humphrey Mar, a deacon and member of the church’s building committee. “People had to raise their voices just to talk to the person right in front of them, which only exacerbated the problem.“
Whisperwave® Ceiling Clouds were later suspended in groups to absorb sound before it could reverberate between the hard ceiling and floor. Unlike traditional acoustical clouds, these are made in an organic wave shape instead of a static board. “The net effect has been a dramatic improvement, especially directly beneath the clouds,” Humphrey says.
2. Old Donation Church, Virginia Beach, Va.
This Church had a fellowship hall which had rarely been used since its construction due to a noise issue. The vaulted ceiling created a reverberation of longer than four seconds. This made it impossible for children or the elderly to use the room comfortably. Cloud mount panels were made and installed according to a designer’s specifications, and the reverberation was reduced to 1.9 seconds. This is the perfect balance or reverb where groups can use the room for activities, but music will still sound “live.”
“Acoustically, this was the goal, and it didn’t take away from the architectural detail,” says Senior Warden Harold VanderWilt.
3. Roslyn Episcopal Retreat Center, Richmond, Va.
The Bishop’s Chapel at the Roslyn Retreat Center was a worship space constructed in 2009. It emulates a feeling of calm and a connection to nature. The cathedral ceiling, large windows, and exposed naturally finished wooden planks help accomplish the desired look. However, this design filled the room with echo. Here is where worship space acoustic treatment comes into play. We fitted Acoustical panels into wood paneling on the walls. We also installed black acoustical ceiling tiles behind the wood paneling in the ceiling. This blended into the beautifully designed chapel and to bring down the echo.
Acoustical testing before and after treatment
A word of advice: Find a company that has professional equipment to test the reverberation time of your room. The ideal RT60 for a worship space, fellowship hall or other meeting area is 0.8 to 1 second. It is kept short in these spaces so [that] when multiple people are speaking at a gathering, speech is still intelligible. The RT60 of a sanctuary should be between 1.6 to 2 seconds. This is long enough for a sermon or music to resonate beautifully, but still be clear. You can estimate the RT60 of a space with a stopwatch, starting it with the noise, and stopping it when you can hear absolutely none of the leftover reverb, but it is [advisable] to get a more accurate reading. The human ear cannot always hear all of the leftover sound.
Acoustical consultants will provide this service, but not necessarily the products you need to correct it. Some acoustics companies will do both. [Architects and designers are advised to] choose a company who will be with you from acoustical testing and design to installation.
Acoustical consultants can tell you what your RT60 is, where it needs to be, and recommend products. You can then buy the products from an acoustics manufacturer and have a contractor install them based on your design. You [may be] risking a [great deal] of error, not just in executing your design, but in achieving your desired acoustical result.
In closing, find an acoustical supplier that will not only sell you panels, but recommend products and placement based on your specific room, do CAD design, provide detailed installation instructions, and follow up with you to make sure the RT60 is where it needs to be.
Check out these videos for the worship space case studies mentioned above:
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