How to design a quiet room

How would you design a quiet study room? If you know a little about acoustics you might think to avoid hard floors, hard surfaces, parallel walls, and large open spaces. The reading room of the Life Science Library at the University of Texas does the opposite. And yet it is wonderfully quiet.

The room is basically a big box, maybe 100 ft long. The slightest noise reverberates throughout the room. But because the room is so live, the people inside are very quiet.

6 thoughts on “How to design a quiet room

  1. Hi John,

    This seems like a similar idea to, say, making football helmets safer (which may result in more injuries) or putting padding in running shoes: forcing people to avoid consequences on their own is often better than engineering things so people do not need to even think about consequences.

  2. I’ll admit that the Michigan library has a better photographer, but I’m not sure it’s the prettier room. I’m a biased longhorn. :)

  3. There was a study of installing anti-lock brakes on taxicabs in Helsinki (I believe — a big Nordic city with lots of ice on the streets in winter anyway). They found that the accident rates went up, and hypothesized that a false sense of security from the anti-lock brakes led to more reckless driving.

    Of course my favorite example is from a joke. A guy comes into a pharmacy and asks for something to relieve his persistent cough. The pharmacist prescribes castor oil. The assisant notes that castor oil is potent laxative. The pharmacist agrees, and adds that the patient won’t dare cough!

    Personally, having experienced the sort of room John describes, I find the inevitable incidental noises from people turning pages, chairs creaking, throat clearing, etc. more distracting than a noisy room.

    It used to be like this in movie theaters, and still is to a degree in symphony halls, live theater, museums, and so on. Part of the problem is it relies on individuals’ inhibitions about disturbing others. But if the individuals don’t know they could be disturbing others, or (more typically I expect) lack the inihibition, it fails. This is especially the case when the people present are there for different reasons, since the easiest way to guess if your own behavior might disturb others is to wonder if the same behavior on their part would bother you. If you can’t think outside of that box and you are there to meet your buddies, it may be difficult to guess that talking on your cellphone would disturb anyone else. And even that does not matter if you are uninhibited about bothering others in the first place.

  4. I suspect that the best combination would be a space in which local noises are reflected locally but absorbed globally. So a series of cubicles which are each quite live, with concave reflectors above them to reflect the noise back into the cubicle. Beyond and between the cubicles, lots of sound absorbant foam and other things to isolate the booths from each other.

    This way people are in quiet environments and speak in lower voices, but are actually isolated from each other.

    It is, however, a far more complex and expensive option than a live room and a stern librarian.

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