How To Guides

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

September 24, 2007

DENNIS FLEISHER

Read Part 1 of this 2-part article.

Michael O'Connell preachingSome care and discernment 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)

Here are some considerations for a church building committee to bear in mind when seeking the services of an acoustics professional for their building project.

1. How does a parish find an acoustician for their building or renovation project?

Given the importance of acoustics in liturgy, the diverse knowledge and experience that an acoustical consultant must bring to the design process, and the lack of formal credentialing of sound professionals, how does a parish find an acoustical consultant for their church building project? Often the project architect or liturgical design consultant will know of an acoustical consultant, either through experiences in past projects or by reputation. Your diocese may have list of recommended acoustics consultants who have an established history of successful projects in the diocese. In other projects, a member of the parish or building committee, or sometimes a member of the music ministry, will know of an acoustical consultant.

Experienced, qualified acousticians are in relatively short supply. In most major cities, acousticians are outnumbered by consulting engineers (structural, mechanical, and electrical) by a factor of ten or more. They are outnumbered by architects by a factor of fifty or more. In the business pages of a telephone directory acousticians are most commonly listed as “acoustical engineers and consultants.” This category will also include professionals in other subspecialties of acoustics, such as community noise control; it will often include sound system contractors and other vendors of audio equipment.

2. What qualifications does an acoustician need for a Catholic church project? What are the selection criteria?

There are two critical factors: experience and references. Acousticians specialize in many areas of acoustics besides churches, such as concert halls, airport and highway noise pollution, occupational noise control, biomedical ultrasound, etc. It is essential that the acoustician you select have experience in architectural acoustics and, specifically, in acoustics for worship spaces. Beyond this, however, it is important to seek out acousticians whose church experience includes liturgical spaces. Acousticians specializing in megachurches and heavily amplified, entertainment-based worship styles may have priorities and sensibilities that are at odds with a worship format that emphasizes the role of the assembly as active participators, not spectators, in liturgy.

Most parishes and dioceses might prefer professional team members to be local to minimize travel expenses and facilitate frequent and convenient meetings. However, there is a real shortage of qualified acousticians and many are engaged in projects around the country. Most professionals who work nationally are sensitive to the need to minimize travel expenses and be available for meeting. In recent years, computers, email, digital photography, and other digital and Internet technologies have made long-distance collaborations much faster and more cost-effective.

3. Is an acoustical consultant needed for every project?

There may be little need for an acoustician for smaller worship spaces though, depending on certain project priorities, an acoustician may provide valuable input for the architectural design. For example, if a pipe organ is to be included in a 200-seat chapel, there might be concerns about optimum placement of the instrument or appropriate reverberation levels. In spaces of fewer than 200 seats it may be possible to shape the space (walls, ceiling, assembly seating shape, etc.) to minimize or even eliminate the need for electronic sound reinforcement.

With the current trend toward larger Catholic churches (1,500 to 2,000 seats and more), the need for professional design assistance in acoustics is crucial. The larger spaces house larger and nosier assemblies, larger and potentially nosier air-conditioning systems and seating expanses that require sophisticated acoustical control and carefully designed sound systems for audibility and speech clarity, without overpowering the voice of the assembly.

4. At what phase of the design process should an acoustician be brought on board?

The form, shape, and physical volume of a church are architectural elements that affect acoustics. In addition, surface shaping, wall and ceiling orientations, finish materials, etc., all have a significant impact on how the architectural elements will reflect and project sound. For example, proper location and configuration of the music ministry area are critically important for natural sound projection so that the musicians support and encourage participation, rather than overpower and discourage the assembly. Proper location of mechanical equipment rooms can minimize the need for extensive noise control, thereby facilitating noise control and reducing the costs. Decisions such as these are fundamental design factors and are far easier to integrate in the architectural design when done in the early design phases. Acousticians who are knowledgeable in architecture, mechanical design, liturgy, and pastoral music can make valuable contributions as early as the programming and conceptual design phases.

In general, the earlier an acoustician is involved in the design process the better, but it is recommended that this occur no later than the mid to late Schematic Design phase or very early in the Design Development phase.

5. With whom is the acoustician’s contract?

It is most common and customary for the engineers to have contracts directly with the project architect. This same procedure is most commonly used when the acoustician is an individual that the architect chooses or prefers, possibly because of a previous professional collaboration. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has standard contract form that architects routinely use for this purpose covering all matters related to contracts, expenses, insurance and liability, etc. Contractually, acousticians are often contracted the same way, i.e., directly with the architect, even though most acousticians are not licensed engineers.

It is recommended that the parish ask the architect and acoustician about their preferences regarding contractual relationships. Also check your diocesan guidelines, as some dioceses have requirements about contractual matters.

Read Part 1 of this 2-part article.

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

Photo by Mike Jensen, Minneapolis, MN

READ OTHER ARTICLES BY DENNIS FLEISHER:

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

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