An edited version of this article was published by IAFEC in the May/June 1997 issue of FEC Management magazine

How Would YOU Like to Spend the Day Inside a Pinball Machine?

by Randy White and Steve Thorburn

It's 3 o'clock on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Every Baby Boomer for miles has brought the Boomlets to work off excess energy in your FEC. There's a line for the rides, a crowd by the games, a seething gang of munchkins surrounding the singing bears. And they all have one thing in common: A really, really bad mood. Why? The noise.


We said, THE NOISE!

That's how to turn every FEC owner's dream into a nightmare. You bust your tush to tailor your FEC to the target market. You put in the right mix of attractions, well-trained staff, and darned fine chow. Then, when the place fills up, your guests are driven to distraction. To them, it sounds like they're inside the blasted pinball machine. The long afternoon, and the money they were planning to spend, evaporates as quickly as their very last nerve.

The noise level has a direct psychological and emotional impact on the guests and staff inside an FEC. Loud noises induce physiological stress in the body, increasing adrenaline flow, blood pressure, and heart rate.

It all started back in caveman days, when loud sounds often meant the rapid approach of a huge, hungry, big-toothed critter. The body, then, programmed itself to fight or flee after loud sounds. Humans who weren't stressed by noise probably became kibble for a T-Rex; eventually, only people with the sound-activated stress response dominated the gene pool. Today, sabertooth tigers are gone but that involuntary response lingers, causing us to jump at loud noises like car horns or sirens.

So would you want to spend the day in an environment that generated the fight-or-flight response? Of course not, and neither would your guests. Those that do stick it out are stressed, irritable, and grumpy. They don't have fun and they don't plan to return. And your staff members, who have to stay, are just as miserable. Service, productivity, and even safety deteriorate.

One of the main reasons people visit FECs is to socialize with the friends or family members who come with them. Children accompanied by parents constitute the majority of indoor FEC guests. Most of the parents are Baby Boomers in their 30s to late 40s. Men, who lose their hearing faster than women, already are having a rough time making out speech in loud rooms or environments where noise reverberates, bouncing around but not being absorbed. The problem is even more severe for elderly guests such as grandparents. If a child has to scream to Grandma that he has to . . . well . . . go, the value of the visit is diminished. And few things are more frustrating to staff and guests than to have to strain to understand what someone else is saying. If that someone is a performer or animatronic character, you've lost the entertainment impact you paid for. Bottom line: Noise costs money.

The White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group [WHLLG] has conducted extensive research with consumers and guests of existing indoor FECs. The research includes mail, phone and intercept surveys, and focus groups of both children and adults. These people, in response to open-ended questions with no prompting or prior mention of acoustics, often mention loud and irritating sound levels as something they dislike about the FEC they visited. And the noise level is mentioned by children as often as adults.

WHLLG and Thorburn Associates [TA] also surveyed sound levels in indoor FECs throughout the country. In most, the constant background sound level is in the 80-90 decibel range or even higher, and on top of that, the FECs are very reverberant. Keep in mind that 85 decibels is the maximum sustained sound level permitted by OSHA for workers over a typical work day without management having to provide hearing protection. People build cars in factories that are less noisy than most FECs.

So What You Gotta Do Is Get This Giant Muffler, See . . .

It's never too late to improve the acoustics in an FEC, but it sure costs less and works better when good acoustics are built into the original design. Good acoustical design is not necessarily expensive. If acoustics are integrated into the design from the very beginning, from conceptual design to construction documents, it rarely will add more than 2 percent to the total cost of the FEC. After the fact, you can count on spending more to accomplish less.

The four primary acoustical design issues that affect indoor FECs are:

  • the zoning of areas of noise-generating components and activities from quiet areas;
  • the control of noise from one area to the next;
  • the acoustic or reverberant build-up of sound; and
  • the control of noise at its source.

Typically, there are two major sources of noise in an FEC. The first is mechanical, including games, rides and attractions, and the building's mechanical systems. The second is human, the noise generated by the guests. Guest noise is good, provided the space is not too reverberant. Mechanical noise is bad. Of course, some of the fun is the sound of the mechanical bells and whistles, or the clatter of the roller coaster coming down the track. What's important is not to eliminate mechanical noise, but to keep it at a low volume through control of the sound level at the source and through sound-reduction systems. With a proper balance and level of sound, guests won't succumb to noise fatigue, and will stay longer, have more fun, and be more likely to return.

Concurrent Design Produces Great Acoustics in Caracas, Venezuela

White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group produces FECs, mainly indoor ones, for clients throughout the world. On one of WHLLG's recent jobs, the firm of Thorburn Associates, acoustical consultants and audiovisual system engineers, was an integral member of the design team for the 50,000-square-foot indoor children's entertainment center called Dinotropolis™ which opened in late 1996 in Caracas, Venezuela.

The traditional design process is sequential and linear, like a relay race. The architect grabs the baton from the client, does the site and floor plan and passes the baton to the structural designer, who finishes her job and starts the baton on its path to a long line of specialists who, one by one, create the lighting, electrical and mechanical systems, thematic and interior design.

One of the big problems with this sequential, relay approach is that each stage of design squeezes the stage after it, often closing off options that could have improved quality, reduced cost, and sped up construction. Another problem is that each person has a vision only of his or her brief segment of the race; there's no unified vision to guide the design. Instead of a team working together to create an FEC experience that delights guests, the individuals do the best they can with what's been handed them. They lose the benefits of the broad view and collaborative creativity.

Designing an FEC this way makes as much sense as, in the words of physicist David Bohm, gluing together the fragments of a broken mirror to see a true reflection. By the time the picture begins to come together, it may be too late to change decisions made at the first leg of the race without costing too much time or quality.

The problem of this traditional approach is especially true with acoustic design. By the time the acoustical consultant (assuming there is one) is passed the baton, many design decisions, such as the space plan, type of construction and finishes, already have been made. Often, the facility's very design is creating many acoustical problems, but the flexibility to correct the underlying causes has been lost.

This is not how we do business at WHLLG. Instead, we use something called concurrent design. Concurrent design of an FEC means pulling together the people who design the facility and business, as well as those who produce and operate it. Everyone jumps into the sandbox at once, with specialists from many different areas participating as members of a multidisciplinary, cross-functional design team from the very beginning. Because the team works simultaneously rather than passing the project down the line, the entire design process is faster and the quality of the guest's FEC experience is greatly improved.

The Japanese have used concurrent design (or concurrent engineering, as it is called in manufacturing) for more than three decades, and it is now gaining acceptance in America. One of the recent American successes of concurrent design is the Chrysler Corporation's Viper sports car. While concurrent design is not as comfortable for most design team members, because it forces them to broaden the view they must take and requires far more coordination and trade-offs, it's the process that allows people to create the best product for the client and for guests.

Dinotropolis™ provides a good example of how concurrent design works. The design process started with an evaluation of the third floor exhibit hall in a shopping center, which was to be the site for the FEC. Existing structural and mechanical systems were evaluated based on the FEC's needs. The location for a new grand stair and elevator entrance was determined based upon shopping center and internal FEC traffic flow, way-finding and visibility considerations. A storyline was developed that would drive the exterior and interior thematic design and many other aspects of the center's design. A conceptual space use plan was then prepared based upon the FEC's program and mix.

At this point, when nothing was cast in stone, Steve Thorburn from TA flew in to spend the day working with the core project production team of architects, interior designers and other consultants for a brainstorming charrette on acoustic design issues and solutions. The space use plan, placement of events, finishes and construction details were discussed and acoustic options explored.

Finding Solutions for Sound Absorption

With an existing structure constructed of concrete with a vaulted exposed metal roof, we knew that if we failed, guests at Dinotropolis™ would last about 10 minutes before their eardrums, nerves, and mood shattered into little pieces.

In particular, the area around the rides and games were hot spots for mind-numbing noise. Steve recommended several design options. The design team considered these possibilities from the standpoint of aesthetics, thematic design, cost, and availability of skilled subcontractors in Venezuela who could install the materials. We settled on a batted, quilted material that had an NRC (noise reduction coefficient) of 98. This material allowed us to expose the steel trust and joist system, which the interior designers preferred and it contributes to the theme.

Next we looked at the ceiling design, and developed several elements that will contribute to the absorption of low-frequency sound, the most difficult to manage. Construction details and finish materials also were discussed. We saved money when we learned that special acoustic wall finishes weren't needed in some areas where our gut would have told us to use them. We developed a system to construct two, 30-foot-long wall murals in two difficult, acoustically critical areas using some special acoustic materials. And we even discovered that the window framing design could improve the space's acoustics if we opted for the sloped windows that were ideal for the building's design.

Next, We Tackled Sound Isolation . . .

There are some places that, even in a busy FEC, you want to be calm and noise-free. By compartmentalizing or zoning areas, we were able to create quiet areas isolated from the games, rides and soft modular play. These areas - the cafe, pre-school hands-on/discovery play and live performance space - beg for a more serene atmosphere.

We also decided to acoustically isolate the birthday party catering suites from the balance of the project because we knew that a guest list of more than 100 isn't unusual in Latin America. The entrance check-in lobby and the redemption prize store also were isolated and given special acoustical treatments to assure that people could communicate easily when they made their transactions.

We then examined how we could prevent sound from transmitting to these different areas of the project. Some walls were added, some spaces slightly re-configured, and some walls were extended to the deck and specified for a different construction to keep the sound from spilling into the quiet areas. These changes had just a minimal impact on cost.

Many simple, painless, and free or inexpensive changes were made while the project was still being designed that prevented acoustical problems and created a good acoustic environment. Many of these changes could not have been made easily or at all later in the project. Involving Steve Thorburn early in the concurrent design process re-affirmed that the easiest way to avoid acoustic design problems was not to create them in the first place, and the whole design team learned valuable lessons about designing for good acoustics.

Hands-on Involvement Keeps Acoustics at the Forefront of the Whole Project

Thorburn Associates stayed involved after that all-day session with the design team and was especially helpful when it came to working with the client. We know that the costs a client doesn't understand or value are the first to go in a budget squeeze. When acoustic design requires special materials, the folks at TA have developed an invaluable tool that allows the client to hear what he or she gets for the money. TA creates a computer simulation, an acoustical model of the space where everyone can hear how the space will sound with and without the acoustical treatment. An added benefit is that the design team also can discover acoustical problems they couldn't locate just from plans.

After the initial session, the design team checked every revision or refinement of the design with Thorburn Associates for their opinion. Regular faxes and telephone conference calls kept the design team in touch, allowing it to discuss changes and options to improve the acoustics. For example, special design specifications were developed for all the rides to help keep their noise down and reduce the transmission of sound to lower floors. And all mechanical system designs were checked to make sure that mechanical noises or blowing air doesn't wreck otherwise good acoustics. Even before the HVAC engineer started work, we helped make him more aware of acoustic criteria and considerations that he needed to incorporate into the design.

There are several morals to this story. First, we in the FEC industry don't pay enough attention to noise, too much of which can turn potentially happy guests into miserable, grumpy people who want to get the heck away from brain-thumping noise. We wouldn't consider planning an indoor FEC without careful attention to acoustics, any more than we'd build an FEC without making sure the air conditioning system was properly sized. Second, unless we pay attention to acoustics early in the design process, it's going to cost more to have less of an impact on noise levels after the fact. Third, the concurrent design process allows a design team to create superior acoustics and build them into every element of an FEC's design. And that is just good business.