Nick’s story

When Nick Boulter enters a building, he listens to it. For him, the structure isn’t just walls, curves and spaces, it’s the sounds – how noise carries and reverberates around the space.

“I observe what I hear, I suppose,” he said. “I hear my footsteps on the floor, and I hear the general level of hubbub and then I look around to try and understand what I’m hearing – how the room is shaped, is noise entering from outside?”

An acoustics engineer – acoustician – at the Arup group of independent designers, architects and engineers, Boulter was a consultant on Soundfair’s HearMe Report, and believes good acoustic design of buildings and public spaces can lessen the frustrations for people with hearing conditions navigating a noisy world.

According to Boulter, “while universal access principles are applied to buildings in the form of ramps and other measures for mobility, the impact of a hearing loss is largely unseen – it’s not obvious that they are having difficulties”.  This is often overlooked in terms of design and the HearMe Report highlights the fact that we can, and must, do better.

“I should be doing the best I can to make places comfortable for people with a hearing condition. In a lot of cases, the thing that makes the most noise is the thing you can’t easily control, which is the people – you can’t stop people talking.”

But Boulter said designers can choose noise-limiting building materials and is excited about a new acoustic capability – auralisation – that allows a client to experience a virtual simulation of how a place will sound before it is built.

The acoustic design community have skills that can enhance the aural environment and improve intelligibility of public address systems. That, and the inclusion of hearing loops and other emerging technologies, can make a massive difference to anyone with a hearing condition, he said.

Boulter wants such measures to become more common, saying standards are currently being revised with proposals to make these design features more ubiquitous and available to more people in more places.

“It is quite an exciting time with newer technologies becoming available that make use of the computing power in peoples’ phones. It’s just a question of making sure people are included and having an updated Australian Standard that determines what is reasonable for a building owner to provide is a great step forward.”

Acoustics are now also being considered in environmental ratings systems for buildings alongside elements such as energy and fresh air, and therefore becoming quite popular in the commercial world in adding value as a selling point.

While Boulter said people with hearing conditions aren’t often specifically taken into account in acoustic design, consideration of factors such as ambient noise, privacy, sound absorbing building materials, would particularly benefit people with hearing loss.

*This story is an excerpt of “Sounds of Equality” by Cate Carrigan. Read the full original article in Croakey.