Wood performance

Wood offers acoustic benefits

Wood’s natural properties can enhance a building’s acoustics and make it a particularly good choice for concert and performance halls, offices and meeting spaces, schools and lecture theatres and more.

Wood can enhance acoustics

For centuries, wood has been a material of choice for acoustic performance. Wood produces sound by direct striking and it amplifies or absorbs sound waves. For these reasons, wood is an ideal material for musical instruments and other acoustic applications, including architectural ones. When it comes to auditorium’s and performance spaces, such as concert halls, classrooms and lecture theatres, wood is often chosen over steel, concrete and glass to produce some of the most rewarding acoustic spaces for performers and audiences.

Wood can serve as a material for acoustic treatments and sound deflection. Wood commonly serves as acoustic panels installed to ceilings or walls, adding aesthetic warmth and even serving as a design feature. Fabric-wrapped wood-frame panels are more durable than resin-hardened panels and the air gap between the insulation and the fabric enhances acoustic performance.

Ts’kw’aylaxw Cultural and Community Health Centre, Lillooet
Photo credit: Ema Peter Photography, courtesy of Unison Architecture Ltd.

Designing for acoustics with wood

As with any material, delivering pleasing acoustics in wood buildings, both light-frame wood and mass timber, requires careful considerations to reduce vibrations and sound transmission.

All types of buildings are subject to four types of sounds requiring mitigation:

  • Airborne sound (speech, stereos)
  • Impact sound (footsteps, falling objects)
  • Flanking sound (airborne and impact sounds emitting through tiny cracks and holes)
  • Sound reverberation caused by reflection off surfaces

With proper design, occupants can enjoy the same privacy and acoustic performance in wood structures as they have come to expect from steel and concrete buildings. As a natural insulator, wood can offer added warmth and comfort while dampening and controlling sound. Wood fibre panels can replace conventional insulation made from fossil fuels while providing significant noise reduction. Interior wood finishes, slats and cladding can further enhance a building’s acoustics.

Designing for acoustics in light-frame wood construction

Through early planning and good acoustic design, light-frame wood construction can isolate sound and deliver acoustic comfort. A properly constructed wood floor and ceiling assembly performs on par with other construction types, according to a study by the National Research Council of Canada. Design solutions for light-frame wood construction focus on ways to minimize sound from airborne sources and movement by people within the building.

For walls in light-frame wood structures, sound isolation can generally be accomplished in two ways: using partitions with a high mass or using low mass systems separated by air spaces. For floors and ceilings, noise control can be improved by increasing its mass through a combination of light-weight concrete, isolation matts, subfloor, joist system and layers of gypsum board. Soft floor finishes or floating engineered hardwood can further mitigate sound transmission.

Multi-family Residential Construction
Photo credit: Rob Salmon

A SOUND EXAMPLE

Acoustic design strategies for a post-secondary learning facility

Acoustics were a significant consideration in the design and construction of the Wood Innovation and Design Centre (WIDC), a 4,600-m2 building featuring cross-laminated timber (CLT) and glue-laminated timber (glulam). Since many of the rooms would be used for presentations and lectures there were specific requirements to isolate sounds and prevent transference between rooms. This included constructing isolated double-stud walls, sealing openings to reduce noise transfer and incorporating acoustical paneling in theatre and lecture spaces.

Wood Innovation and Design Centre, Prince George
Photo credit: Brudder

Designing for acoustics in mass timber and taller wood construction

The acoustic performance of traditional building assemblies, such as light-frame wood, steel and concrete is widely understood, given its long track record of use. Sound mitigation, vibration and noise reduction  for mass timber assemblies and technologies, on the other hand, are still emerging and supported by ongoing research.

Acoustic performance in mass timber buildings can be improved by adding any combination of increased mass, noise barriers and decouplers—which means separating the two sides of a wall to make it harder for sound to pass through the wall.

Skidegate Elementary School
Photo credit: Martin Tessler, courtesy Acton Ostry Architects

Mass timber’s solid mass helps reduce sound transmission between walls and floors. This generally entails increasing mass wherever possible. This can include using a hybrid mass timber building system, such as one that combines wood with other materials such as a concrete topping. Other methods include adding underlayments and mats.

Every project requires a unique approach to mitigating noise transference and a certain amount of sound transference sometimes can’t be avoided. Nonetheless, mass timber projects can minimize it by reducing small openings between walls and constructing airtight connections. Building professionals should give focus to the design of building assemblies as well the quality of fit when components are connected, both on and offsite, to optimize a wood structure’s acoustic performance.

DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR?

Wood offers a sound performance

The acoustics in the rotunda are pretty amazing. It offers a rich concert-hall sound—much richer sound than you would get in a conventional gymnasium.

Rob Comeau, Principal, Abbotsford Senior Secondary School

Photo credit: Aaron Millar, courtesy CHP Architects

Abbotsford Senior Secondary School

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