How To Guides

Church Acousticians and their Roles in Church Building and Renovation Projects: Part I

September 24, 2007

DENNIS FLEISHER

Read Part 2 of this 2-part article.

Mundus at BasilicaThe design of a church building or renovation is usually carried out by a design team, a group of professionals who specialize in various facets of architecture and engineering. The members of the design team are usually selected and led by the project architect and include structural, civil, mechanical, and electrical engineers. This select team serves and supports the architect in designing and specifying the necessary building systems for structure, climate control, lighting, plumbing, etc. In the United States many elements of architectural design involve national and municipal building codes as well as life safety consideration; therefore, state regulations require that these engineers are required, by state regulations, to be registered and licensed in their respective fields. This registration and licensing qualifies the individual as a Professional Engineer or “PE.”

There are, however, other elements of church design that involve less critical but essential elements of the worship environment, particularly how that environment will serve and support liturgy and public worship. One of these areas is sound or, more formally, acoustics, a branch of physics and engineering. Sound is a fundamental and pervasive element of public worship and is manifest in Catholic liturgy in many different forms such as readings, prayers, homilies, and hymns and in the spoken and sung Mass parts. Speech must be intelligible and music uplifting and inspiring, to support and encourage assembly participation. All the members of the liturgical assembly both experience and produce the sounds of public worship. Yet silence too, the absence of sound, is important.

"Silence is the ground of all prayer. From contemplative silence emerge the sung and spoken prayer of the entire assembly and the prayers and proclamations of the various ministers. Liturgical celebrations call for the clear transmission of the sung and spoken responses of the liturgical assembly, as well as of the words of the individual ministers such as the priest celebrant, the deacon, the readers, and the cantor and leader of song. In addition, the space should provide an environment for instrumental music that supports the assembly’s song and worship." (Built of Living Stones (“BLS”) 221.)

Ideally, these sound-related elements of church architecture and liturgy are designed and integrated by professionals in acoustics, known by various (albeit unofficial) titles, such as acousticians, acoustical engineers, or acoustical consultants.

"Acoustical engineers can help parishes design a building capable of the natural transmission of sound; they also can be of great assistance in the renovation of existing buildings." (BLS 223.)

This recommendation is certainly prudent and well intentioned: many acousticians do have an engineering background and some (a clear minority) are, in fact, licensed Professional Engineers. Their PE credential, however, is usually not in acoustics but, rather, in a related field, such as mechanical or electrical engineering. Again, acousticians are not required to be licensed or registered, as are other engineering professionals, since acoustics does not involve life safety or building codes. (Oregon is the only US state that has a formal licensing process for Acoustical Engineers as PEs specializing in acoustics.)

Compared with other engineering disciplines, architectural acoustics involves a true synthesis of science and art, i.e., the objective elements of sound production and transmission (physics and engineering) and the subjective elements of human perception (auditory and sensory experiences). Many acousticians often have formal education and practical experience in several diverse fields, including physics, engineering, music, and architecture; those who specialize in worship spaces generally have a keen awareness, knowledge, and appreciation of liturgy and church music. Yet, to address all the acoustical design factors for a liturgical assembly space (see the EnVisionChurch how-to guide, Acoustics for Liturgy), acousticians need a working knowledge of architecture and building materials, physics and engineering, music and musical instruments, noise control and sound isolation, sound systems and the human perception of sound, and a host of complex and related sonic phenomena.

Some care and discernment, however, is required in considering prospective candidates to serve as the acoustician for a church building project or even to correct acoustical problems in existing buildings. It may be tempting, or appear to be cost-effective, to engage a local sound contractor or well-meaning parishioner, but this approach usually yields unsatisfactory results.

"Normally, engaging the skills of professionals with experience in . . . acoustical design and sound transmission, and design is preferable to selecting vendors of equipment or accepting the “good will” services of individuals who may have some knowledge but who lack the requisite qualifications to design and install elements suitable for a church. . . ." (BLS 197.)

Part 2 of this article will address some of the considerations for a church building committee to bear in mind when seeking the services of an acoustics professional for their building project.

Read Part 2 of this 2-part article.

Dennis Fleisher earned a Ph.D. in Physics/Acoustics and Music from the University of Rochester/Eastman School of Music.  He is principal of MuSoncis, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Photo by Mike Jensen, Minneapolis, MN

READ OTHER ARTICLES BY DENNIS FLEISHER:

Acoustical Considerations for St. Clare of Assisi's New Church (Part I and Part II)
Acoustics for Liturgy
Church Acousticians and their Roles in Church Buildings and Renovation Projects (Part II)
Room Acoustics: Its Significance in Sacred Space and Liturgy

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