October 22, 2017

Hush Rooms: new, quiet and healthy havens for SCE

Felicity Lu-Hill, Allison Sloan

Most of the time, we don’t think about the way rooms impact sound, or the way sound impacts the way we feel. But sound and the spaces it inhabits can affect our mental health and wellbeing.

Foot steps echo in a cavernous church. Cheering shakes the bleachers of a gymnasium. Laughs are absorbed into soft surfaces inside a carpeted bedroom. Most of the time, we don’t think about the way rooms impact sound, or the way sound impacts the way we feel. But sound and the spaces it inhabits can affect our mental health and wellbeing.

Robert Kirkbride, Dean of Parsons’ School of Constructed Environments (SCE), has some experience working with acoustics and is concerned about the way sound impacts people everyday. “Anyone who does acoustical research sees that under the radar sound really impacts our stress levels, our health and well-being, quite directly,” he says. “It’s just we tend to overlook it.” Knowing this, Robert was concerned about the sonic atmosphere of the newly renovated SCE hub on the 12th floor of 2 West 13th Street. The new small meeting rooms, in particular, needed some acoustical improvement. “They were extremely noisy and reverberant,” Robert reflects.

As soon as he realized something needed to be done about the sonic quality of these rooms, he thought of Healthy Materials Lab. “I was very mindful of giving HML the opportunity to prototype doing spaces like this,” Robert says. Together with Alison Mears, Director of HML, and Jonsara Ruth, Director of Design at HML, they came up with an idea to use new healthier materials to address acoustic insulation of three small meeting spaces in the SCE hub, nicknamed “Hush Rooms” by HML design researchers.

I. Choosing the Materials

When introduced to this project, Jonsara decided to use this opportunity to experiment with products HML had been researching. “It was exciting to test a material in a space that will have consistent use by a large group of people. It’s a great opportunity to get people’s reactions while it’s being installed and have our researchers experiment with ways of designing with these materials,” Jonsara remembers. With this in mind, Jonsara, Robert, and Alison agreed the best way to experiment would be to use a different material for each room. The team quickly decided to use mycelium and cork for two of the three rooms. Both materials are naturally flame retardant and neither has synthetic chemical additives. They are, in a sense, natural. Cork is nothing more than bark from a cork tree, heated and compressed into a rectangular panel form, and mycelium is the network of vegetative fibers that grow beneath fungus, usually underground. The only other ingredient in mycelium is agricultural waste, which the mycelium feeds on in order to grow. For this reason, the mycelium tiles that wound up being used for one meeting room was nicknamed “mush-room.” Jonsara already had manufacturers in mind for both of these materials; Ecovative for the mycelium, and Thermacork for the cork. HML promoted both manufacturers at NeoCon this year.

The third material required a little more brainstorming. “We’d been talking a lot to Sean Regal who’s the founder of CarpetCycle,” Jonsara remembers. “He has a really interesting idea of circular economies, and how he can take waste and make new products from it.” CarpetCycle takes used carpets, cleans them, shreds them and into sheets of insulation. Although the product, Quiet-Tech by Carpet Cycle, is a bit more complex than the singular, pure ingredient products of Thermacork and Ecovative, it’s still free of formaldehyde and fiberglass, it’s Greenguard Gold Certified, and puts a major emphasis on sustainability, making it a good fit for Healthy Materials Lab. It’s also gone through extensive acoustic testing, proving to reduce sound by 95% (hence it’s called “Quiet-Tech”), making it a great fit for the Hush Room project.

The design researchers had to wait for the mycelium tiles to grow. Ecovative actually grows their product to order.

Other products were also considered: seaweed, wool, and flax insulation for example. Because these products aren’t yet as accessible, and therefore not as easy for designers and architects to specify, people using the room would be working side by side, these products these materials were not selected. The materials they wound up choosing were not only sonically beneficial, but also aesthetically and tactilely pleasing.

II. Design & Installation

Both Thermacork and CarpetCycle donated their products and Ecovative offered their product at a great discount. An interesting caveat was that once the Lab ordered the mycelium “Hive Acoustic Wall Tiles” from Ecovative, the design researchers had to wait for the mycelium tiles to grow. Ecovative actually grows their product to order. While they waited, the design researchers worked with the cork and the “QuietTech” recycled carpet insulation. As it turned out, there was less preconceived design involved in this project, since they were less familiar with the materials and what they could do to manipulate them. “The material drove the design,” says Sarah Burns, a post-graduate researcher for HML. Sarah led the design and installation for the Hush Room project. “There are not a lot of drawings because we were mostly experimenting with the materials themselves.”

Sarah explains how the team quickly realized they wanted to cover the room with cork. “The softness and feeling you get being around [the cork] drove the desire to be fully surrounded by it,” says Sarah. In addition to covering the room, they decided to play with the width of the cork panels and add a fishtail detail to soften the corners. They cut the original panels down from their original width and placed the narrow slats in the corner and the thicker slats away from the corners, creating a more dynamic feel in the space. They were able to do this when they realized the cork was so easy to manipulate and install. “You can break it, you can crumble it. You can cut it just like it’s any other sheet material.”

This experience was very different from working with the carpet insulation, which proved very difficult to cut. “We did a series of materials experiments where we were trying to manipulate it. We tried scissors, regular olfa blade, bandsaw blade, jigsaw. Nothing would cut it clean.” Finally the team reached out to the manufacturer asking for advice. Turns out, it requires a special kind of blade to cut it, one specifically for the insulation process. The material was not meant to be cut by consumers, but rather installed inside walls with its typical installation dimensions. This was also made apparent by the mass of fibers that were released while the team manipulated the material. Tiny microfibers began irritating their eyes and lungs as they tried to give it a clean cut. “It’s really important that if you were to use this upcycled material, you wear eye protection and a respirator,” Sarah reflects. Luckily, the manufacturer was generous enough to send over the correct blade for them to use, and the team was able to cut the material cleanly with it. They were even able to find a use for the small, irritating fibers, using them to cover the little holes the nails had made in the carpet. Like the cork, the recycled carpet insulation drove the design, and due to the nature of this material, they decided it would be best for there to be as little manipulation as possible. They covered two walls completely and one wall partially, which turned out to be more than enough sound insulation for the space.

Meanwhile, the mushrooms grew. As the team could only obtain 100 tiles, this room required an even more thoughtful design. The tiles turned out to be off-white cream and hexagonally shaped. With these parameters in mind, the team had to come up with a design that made sense.They came up with a way to make the hexagons look as though they’re sprinkling down from the ceiling by making the hexagons dense towards the top and scattered near the floor. This way, the room would offer visual interest and the insulation could be spread out to cover all the walls of the room.

Putting a plastic coating on a wall means you’re living inside a plastic box. The walls don’t breathe. Have you ever seen a wall sweat? The moisture doesn’t have anywhere to go.

They also decided to paint the mushroom room a dark, steel blue to offset the creamy, off-white color of the tiles. As this project strived to be as healthy as possible, the team used mineral paint, by RomaBio, which the Lab also promoted at NeoCon. “Mineral paints have much less off-gassing than typical paints,” says Jonsara. “ also, in the end, mineral paint allows the room to breathe more because its permeable. One of its critical ingredients is limestone which is porous.” She explains that typical acrylic paint is basically plastic. “Putting a plastic coating on a wall means you’re living inside a plastic box. The walls don’t breathe. Have you ever seen a wall sweat? The moisture doesn’t have anywhere to go.” The team used healthier paint as well as nails instead of glue for every insulation to prevent off-gassing from adhesives. Another bonus is that mechanical fasteners don’t attract cockroaches and other insects like adhesives do.

III. Results

Each room ended up having a unique and visually memorable personality. The mycelium room has a well designed, graphic look. The cork room has a rich warm texture with a curious fishtail detail on the corners. The carpet room has a vivid blue color with all kinds colors interspersed. “The texture of all those little fibers,” says Sarah referring the carpet room, “You can imagine all those different carpets, how many different homes are a part of this wall.” Though Quiet-Tech proved to be the most difficult to manipulate, it wound up being the most effective in terms of sound insulation. With only two walls covered, the room has absolutely no reverberance.

Along with sound insulation, a beautiful aesthetic, and a pleasing texture, each room brings another sense to it: smell. The ThermaCork room, which is made by literally baking the bark of cork trees, smells fresh and a little burnt, like being at a spa. The carpet room, which was made from recycled worn carpets, smells like a carpeted old house, like staying over at grandma’s. The mushroom room, made from a network of mushroom fibers, smells earthy, like the inside of a greenhouse. Each room has its own unique, sensual experience, from sound to sight to touch to smell. And each room seems to tell a little bit about itself just from sitting inside it.

More than that the rooms all tell a little bit about themselves in the form of placards. The design team created museum style placards that describe the material of each room, their dimensions, their manufacturers, and from what year the material was available. The idea is to let visitors know how they, too, can obtain the insulation and use it in their projects. Like most of what the Lab does, it’s an opportunity to offer healthier resources as well as demonstrate new materials in design.

The faculty at SCE are happy with the Healthy Material Lab’s work. Robert and Jonsara are now talking about insulating a bigger conference room at the SCE hub. But first, Robert wants to wait and see what happens with the rooms they just finished. “We’re going to take a step back and learn from these rooms,” he says. “Then we’ll take it from there.”

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