Design Choices and Your Hearing: The Role of Acoustics

by Bridget Dobyan, HIA Executive Director

April 3, 2024


A few weeks ago, I attended a hearing health event at the newly renovated Australian Embassy here in Washington, DC. It is a beautiful, innovative new building designed by Bates Smart, an Australian architectural studio. The new embassy incorporates glass and wood with a stunning atrium that welcomes guests.


Upon arriving, I took note of the multi-story glass atrium with a bit of apprehension as that style generally makes it more difficult to hear conversation, especially as a hearing technology wearer. As I walked through the expansive space and looked around me, I was taken by the gorgeous wood paneling incorporated across the walls. I then realized that conversation was actually incredibly comfortable and I didn’t notice that echoing effect so common to cavernous spaces.


That’s the power of thoughtful building design. In this space, which uses Australian materials, the wood paneling serves to absorb sound and reduces echo. Here, we get the best of both worlds – a stunning, soaring atrium and comfortable conversation.


These same principles can be observed in other places we may frequent, such as places of worship, gymnasiums, community centers, and more. While open spaces that reverberate sound may create a multi-dimensional musical experience, it’s not conducive to being able to clearly make out speech. There are entire industries now built around providing sound solutions to these types of venues, including special panels or building materials. There are also steps that can be taken to retrofit facilities to absorb sound, including installing carpeting and choosing fabric-covered furniture.


A fun example of the bizarre world of acoustics can be observed in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building. Found beneath a half-dome ceiling, Statuary Hall is famous as the “whispering gallery”, where someone speaking in a soft tone can be clearly heard by those standing on the other side of the room. This acoustical phenomenon is likewise observed at Grand Central Terminal in New York City. When people stand on opposite sides of the rotunda’s arch, they can have a normal conversation even when located approximately 30 feet from one another.


Even outdoors we see acoustical building or construction elements. Perhaps most common and easy to observe are the highway traffic noise barriers. Per the U.S. Department of Transportation, highway noise barriers work by either absorbing sound, transmitting sound, reflecting it back, or changing its path. We may not think of acoustics when whizzing by these barriers while driving down the highway, but they provide a certain level of relief for neighborhoods and homes located on the other side of these tall walls.


From daily individual choices like which seat to pick in a restaurant, to large scale design plans that incorporate sound absorption, we all have something to learn from acoustics! If you think you’re experiencing hearing difficulty, it’s always a good idea to see a licensed hearing professional. If you already use hearing aids, you can also talk to your professional about using pre-set programs with your device that you can adjust or switch to depending on the specific environment you’re in. Happy listening!

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