As a student in interior design, dining in a restaurant is more than a culinary experience; it’s an experience in delving into the mind of the designer. I look at the different spaces, ceiling heights, vistas from different areas, lighting strategies, materials, and try to determine what the dining experience is like in each space. Beyond the visual, I also pay attention to the noises and sound quality in each space.
The perfect balance must be struck to achieve the ideal restaurant soundscape: vibrant enough to attract customers, but not so loud as to turn them away. The acoustical challenge is to abate some sounds while maintaining others. One study found that respondents disliked the sound of steps, people walking, chairs screeching on the floor, crying, shouting, and ringing (e.g. cell phones), and most liked natural sounds (especially water), music, and laughter.
Materials hold sound changing properties like absorption, diffusion, and reflection*, which can vary based on the material’s unique chemical composition and the sound frequencies in the environments in which they are placed. The optimal restaurant soundscape can be crafted through a delicate play with materials of different compositions and forms, and a knowledge of the frequencies of the sounds within a space.
Understanding the importance of materials on interior acoustics, I perused the on-site Material ConneXion (MCX) library at the ASID headquarters in Washington, D.C. Sponsored by the American Chemistry Council, the library houses a collection of healthy materials and invites visitors to become familiar with them inside the space. In the library, I found a few materials that stood out to me for their acoustic properties and possible applications in restaurant design:
Cementfoam (MC 6196-03): a cement-based material developed by a Thai manufacturing company, Polyfoam. It absorbs more sound than most concrete, a material known for its sound reflecting properties. With its very low heat transmission and high tolerance to moisture, it could be an interesting material for thermal and acoustic insulation in a restaurant kitchen.
Semi-Finished Flat Dukta Wood (MC 7367-01): a natural and flexible wood panel material that allows for sound transparency, or the complete transmission of sound (NRC close to 0). Due to the cut-outs in this material, it is exceptionally pliant and can be used as a visual partition with an undulating shape. The manufacturer, Dukta Flexible Wood, has also created acoustical wall panels that come corrugated, allowing for both sound diffusion and absorption (its NRC varies around 1 for all frequencies of 125Hz to 5000Hz). These are typically wall-mounted and are ideal for lessening speech sounds.
Acoustic-Lightboard (MC 5566-02): a micro-perforated panel absorber made from natural materials. As an innovative alternative to sound absorption, micro-perforated panel absorbers consist of a panel with perforations of varying cavity depths to absorb a variety of sound frequencies, and a backing which provides air cushioning. Although mostly used in spaces that range from performance halls to offices, they could be used in restaurants as well.
Innovations continue to arise through further research and collaboration. In an effort to find new and improved ways to facilitate sound reduction, researchers have evaluated the potential for new micro-perforated acoustical panels with the effect of Helmholtz resonators. This panel provides control over a soundscape by removing some sounds and letting others diffuse into spaces. In a restaurant, this novel acoustic panel could eliminate speech sounds, while retaining the low-frequency sounds that create a lively and attractive ambiance.
While more research on acoustics needs to be done, one study found that, in coffee shops, acoustics contribute to place attachment. This suggests an interesting tie between acoustics and people’s attraction to and sense of ownership of places. Designers have the power to not only shape the soundscape of environments, but also impact the human experience by encouraging the continued visitation of spaces. Whether in a restaurant or another environment, crafting the auditory experience has a dramatic effect on how places are received and perceived.
About the Author
Amira Samiy is pursuing a B.S. in Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University and is currently interning at the American Society of Interior Designers with a focus on research. She is a strong proponent of human-centered design achieved through research, and her interests lie in health and well-being and sustainability, two areas of design she hopes to contribute to by investigating the social world. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Absorption: Abates sound. Designers look at the noise reduction coefficient (NRC), which quantifies the amount of noise that a material can absorb (the closer to 1, the more sounds are absorbed), when specifying materials.
* Diffusion: Spreads sound evenly throughout a space, thereby attenuating it.
* Reflection: Sends sound in a different direction from where it came, thus amplifying it.