“If you think a professional is expensive, wait ’til you try an amateur.”
― Paul “Red” Adair
In a country where we are rather used to noise, why would someone want to hire someone to make things quieter? It has to translate into some monetary benefit, else it is not worth the investment. This is the very thing independent acoustical consultants advise about in the very first site visit – for no cost – on what the design goals should be, what is attainable given constraints of budget, (and sometimes structural constraints in case of retrofits, where excess loading may not be possible), and whether the attainable design goal will be worth investing in at all. So we start by knowing whether there is a need to spend or not!
Foresight: Avoiding Retrofits
That a significant proportion of my work is retrofit work should tell you that there isn’t enough awareness about the benefits of incorporating acoustical design inputs earlier on. As a result, lots of work gets done, and then there’s still a noise problem. Serviced Apartments that charge from between Rs. 8000 to Rs. 15000 a day do not get repeat customers because the double glazing is not good enough to stop intrusive traffic horns and rumbles in the wee hours of the morning. There are calculations that tell you what kind of glazing will give you how much of sound insulation. I can give you scores of such examples from my projects.
- Business hotels don’t get repeat customers because there is duct cross talk and no conversation is private – or because the glazing isn’t enough to keep horn noise from intruding in the early hours,
- Club owners have had to use bouncers to keep neighbours from barging in.
- Metro trains have caused sleep disorders (and so health disorders due to inadequate sleep, elevated heart rate)
- Overall results of a school went up because they invested in a re-org and shifted classrooms to a quieter area away from the main road. That first hearing of a lecture is sometimes all the students need.
Getting us in early will avoid problems later. We take responsibility to predict problems and prevent them before they occur. We know what materials work at what frequencies, and how they should be installed for maximum efficiency.
Right, so now that we’ve decided we want a consultant, who should we talk to? I’ve seen projects where acoustical vendors promise sound “reduction” out of stretch fabric systems. Those systems would have to defy laws of physics to meet such goals. I was very keen to ask the client to call their bluff and ask them to install it – they get paid if it works, else not. Time was of essence, so that didn’t happen.
It’s really sad – the ignorance exists because there is not much scope to study the subject here – not something to be happy about. What’s really sad is that people tend to believe anyone walking in with a sound level meter – having no clue about what quantity is to be measured. Instantaneous? Averaged noise levels? Slow average? Why?
And so we have layers on layers being added. Example: Two layers resiliently mounted would’ve worked better than 4 layers in 2 separate frameworks. It’s someone’s money down the drain.
To be fair, there is sometimes a need to do things in phases – when the budget is a HUGE constraint. It’s easy for us to give a one-shot solution, with enough buffers for performance, but considering that someone cannot afford to over-engineer, we stop the play-it-safe methodology and go layer by layer. But even then, such a situation is always more expensive than having thought of it earlier.
The simple reason is that someone will take responsibility for solving your problem, and give you proof that will hold up in any court of law. For instance, soundproofing is a relative concept. What’s noise to some is music to others. Getting an acoustical consultant in for the soundproofing design will ensure that you don’t get half baked results, with claims of “isn’t this enough soundproofing” being made. There are numbers that tell you whether you are on the safe side of the law or not, and whether the soundproofing is enough to ensure restful sleep or not. And there are proper international standards mentioning how these are to be measured. If that seems vague and not buyable, or ‘out of my league’, ask club owners who pay upwards of Rs. 50k every month to cops. Acoustical consultancy with pre and post-measurements is FAR cheaper than what one would spend on bribes or retrofits. Bear in mind, these last two causes for money drain come in when the project is completed, and nearly always, at the time of completion, budgets have always been overshot. Much easier to get a qualified consultant in earlier and avoid these late fixes.
The same with reverberation issues in listening spaces. There is a science in place to classify what’s acceptable and what’s not – what’s good for speech, and what conditions are good for music, what parameters are required for xyz volume, and how much less you can get away with, and so opinions I give out are not personal opinions – they’re just technical facts. Some of it is the absolute truth, some of it is the statistically accepted truth :). But knowing the science gives us the great advantage of knowing how wide the safety margins are. Most often ideal text-book solutions are not possible, and so knowing the margin of error becomes the most important thing in a project. That’s why measurements will forever have their space in this field in spite of the highly advanced software we use for simulating very closely to the real scenarios.
This is the most important criteria to look for. The kind of money it saves people is usually at least a few times the cost of the consultancy itself.
An independent consultant will tell you how effective it would be use product X, and how much more effective it would be do Y, for approximately abc cost difference. This makes sense only if that consultant is not gaining financially from Product X or Y companies. That’s independent consulting. I know clients who receive quotes ranging from 2 lakhs to 25 lakhs for the same noise issue. That’s when they turn to a consultant who understands sound waves and material science, who can measure, design, and quantify results, and who has chosen not make any money out of recommending any brand or any vendor.
This is exactly the reason I don’t do turnkey installations. I will spend more time defending my design if I have profits over materials. Now my design is never questioned, and the single compliment I’ve received in at least 3 of my projects is that based on my design, work got done efficiently, and in close to half the price quoted by other vendors. Of course, the other reason I don’t do turnkey installations is that acoustics is a rare field, and I’d rather do that than enter fields of interiors and project management – skilled resources for which are plenty to be found.
When people haggle for tens of thousands in the consultancy fees, it seems wise to point out that I don’t take 10% from a product company, and then charge nearly no consultancy fees, and then happily drive up project costs exponentially. The classics – penny wise, pound foolish, a stitch in time saves nine, etc. Now examples of cases where the consultant has margins over materials include cinemas that were to get done in 9.5 crores that eventually got done in 15 crores.
Since we don’t really seem to have a culture that values paying for intangibles such as design, as is common in many design-related professions, I’ve met enough people who think acoustical consultants can photosynthesize and need to make no money whatsoever. I remind myself that my job is to give honest advice for a fee, and not spend time convincing people they require technical advise, so I’ve had to learn not to give away free bits of advice that people can glean. So I now write articles instead of spending the same time talking. :). As karma would have it, some of those clients have had to come back after spending close to twice the amount on experimentation.
As an ending note, I am aware that the tone of this article is not entirely that of a detached professional piece – there are personal prerogatives and choices mentioned here. But I do believe that beyond a point, people are interested to know the motives behind where their money gets spent. Making my choices clear is an easy step in saving myself at least an hour’s time discussing this in nearly every project.
It’s infinitely more rewarding to happily do some real work instead, and answer cheerful phone calls from people who excitedly called back saying the client is awesomely thrilled because stuff got done in half of what he was asked to spend by others.