Friday, January 27, 2017

Courtrooms - How to Get Quiet

We used to say about computers that you can never have too much RAM or too much disk space.  Similarly in courtrooms one cannot make them too quiet.  We discuss why and how on this below.


Modern office buildings are built with a certain amount of ambient background noise.  This is most often provided by the air movement and fan noise for the heating and cooling system.  The ambient noise is great for masking conversations and normal sounds that people make.  In other words, it is designed to make it more difficult to hear and understand what is being said.  But the opposite of what is needed in a courtroom.

Thus the goal in the courtroom is to facilitate the hearing and understanding of the persons speaking and to facilitate digital audio recording and video conferencing.   But too often I have found that courtrooms are treated the same as other offices.  This sometimes results in judges complaining that the videoconferencing system does not work because the participants cannot hear one another.

I have personally seen and heard a courtroom that was louder than normal offices because the air handling equipment fans were located immediately above the judge’s bench.  Who would do such a thing? I would guess that it was an engineer’s job was to heat and cool the space, not to worry about the other requirements, such as the acoustic properties of the courtroom?  Therefore, I believe that it is up to you as a judge or court administrator to make this a priority in any new construction or renovation.  It is also important to bring in experts that are trained acoustical engineers.  You can read about that field of study here and their association here.

 You should also know that the acoustics of a courtroom can be measured today with design software created for just that purpose.  You can check out examples of that here and here.

It is also important to control the sound coming from adjacent space.  Some of this can be done with wall sound insulation. But please understand that sound can not only go through but over the walls in the ceiling.  That means that they also need sound insulation as well.  Our NCSC headquarters building Education and Technology Laboratory has multiple layers of sheet rock material installed in the ceiling to absorb external sound.  That room is one in which a person can be more than 30 feet away and still understand a normal level speaking voice.

A great resource on this subject it available here at the NCSC in the Courthouse Planning website.  You can check out the page on courtroom acoustics here.

And last, I want to mention the late architect Walter Sobel who was the creator of the double-door courtroom vestibule concept.  The two doors significantly reduced courtroom noise from busy corridors.  I had the great honor of working with Walter on several projects.  He was a true visionary.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this Jim. I agree this is an overlooked aspect of courtroom design and operations. Research by myself and some colleagues in Australia found that the accoustics was often an overlooked (or under-investigated)component of videoconferencing installation and we actually recommended some accoustic standard in that respect.