An Interview with Acoustics Expert, Paul Absolon.
One of several acoustic experts that we at the Akoustix store are very fortunate to have access to when it comes to discussing your soundproofing challenges, Paul Absolon is a recognised authority in the field.
He's designed acoustic solutions for award-winning buildings, national theatres, power stations, North Sea oil platforms, universities, 13,000-seat performance arenas, major supermarket chains and some of the most prestigious hotels in the country.
Paul has also been instrumental in the sourcing, acoustic testing and, in some instance, the design and creation of many of the soundproofing products that form the Akoustix range.
Paul took a little time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions.
Q: When did you first become interested in acoustics?
A: When I worked for a large diesel engine manufacturer, they, amongst many other applications, produced generator sets. I developed an interest in reducing the amount of noise they made by creating acoustic enclosures. I was at college for five years and as part of my specialisation I did research into building and industrial acoustics, and noise control.
Q: Do you remember your first soundproofing/acoustics project
A: I was part of a team of designers and manufacturing engineers at a company called Sound Attenuators Limited. They were a large technical manufacturing company producing a wide range of acoustic hardware, products and materials. At that time, they were one of the largest and most reputable noise control companies in the world.
We had a project to design and build around twenty mobile acoustic enclosures for British Telecom. The enclosures needed to soundproof forty-foot trailers that comprised a Solar Saturn gas turbine and generator, and a control room. These trailers provided emergency for BT exchanges in the event that the mains power went down. The gas turbine produced around 140dB. This is a painful and dangerous level of noise, 55dB above the threshold at which employees must be provided with ear defenders, according to the Control of Noise at Work Regulations.
The trailer units could often be located in quiet residential areas, and could be running at night or in the early hours of the morning, so we needed to reduce the amount of noise produced by a very challenging 90-100dB. As it turned out, after we completed the project, one of the first telephone exchanges to require one of these portable power supplies was not only in my home town, but in a very old and quiet residential area of the town.
The project was a great success. In fact, if it wasn’t for the heat being given off by the hot gas attenuators, it was impossible to tell if one of the generators was running, at all.
Q: Have you worked on any well-known acoustic projects?
A: Yes, I’ve worked on the technical acoustics for many of the country’s largest construction projects. The Shard is probably the best known building, but it’s not the tallest building I’ve worked on; that would be the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building, and one of the most beautiful of the world’s modern buildings. Before that I had worked on the Burj al Arab, again a beautiful building shaped like a giant sail.
In the UK, one of the highest specification projects I’ve worked on is One Hyde Park, a luxury residential development which includes retail units for the likes of Rolex, McLaren Automotive and the Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank.
Other projects include Glyndebourne Opera House, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Three Quays near the Tower of London, Copenhagen Opera House (which, acoustically, was a massive project), The SSE Hydro Arena in Glasgow, The Globe Theatre, News International’s plant at Broxbourne (again a huge project acoustically), and the Uksmouth coal-fired power station near Newport in South Wales.
A unique project was the Triplets (AKA the Gas Holder) at the Kings Cross re-development. Here all the Victorian cast steelwork had been removed and painted and then reassembled on site minus the gas holders themselves, then the cylindrical buildings were effectively constructed within the original rings.
Q: What was has been your most challenging acoustic project, and why?
A: Well, I think the two that were very challenging were the Uskmouth power station and the News International plant.
The Uksmouth power station was particularly challenging because of the very high noise emissions that had to be treated: 140dB from the turbine dry cooling system had to be reduced to below 85dB. The problem was there was not enough space between the ducts for a thick lagging solution. At first, it seemed acoustically impossible, however I had an idea that had never been tried before, a layered approach, using a variety of materials with different densities and different noise attenuating properties. The first layer comprised 50mm elastometric isolation pads distributed every 300mm to create plenty of airspaces, because soundwaves move less effectively through dead air. The second layer was a high-performance, mineral-fibre acoustic lagging. The third layer comprised a high-density, barium-sulphate-loaded thermoplastic polymer. The forth layer duplicated the second. The fifth layer duplicated the third. The sixth and final layer consisted of a corrosion-resistant Aluzinc casing. The testing demonstrated that our solution had reduced the noise generated by 39%, to just 82-83dB, under the 85dB required by the Noise at Work Regulations.
The second would be the News International project, largely for the sheer scale of the project. The building was gigantic and the internal acoustics had not been fully accounted for, but once a good team of acoustic consultants was brought on-stream we supplied all the 28,000m2 of sound absorbing wall panels.
Q: Could you take us through a typical working day for you?
A: Well that’s a difficult one as every day is so different. I always come to work with my day planned out, knowing exactly what I’m going to be doing, but often, when it comes to going home in the evening, none of that work had been started because of a whole set of new, more urgent tasks that have cropped up. Not every day is like that, but when you’re quite well known in the acoustics and construction industry, there are always architects and acoustic consultants in need of good advice. That’s a big part of my job. Once you have a reputation for solving problems and getting things right, people don’t forget and often come back to you. Plus our company doesn’t charge for the advice we gain. Our revenue comes from our soundproofing products and noise control materials.
Q: What is the most satisfying part of your work?
A: I would think looking at the London skyline and knowing how many of those buildings I’ve had some input into their acoustics solutions. Knowing that your material specifications in auditoriums, for example, contribute to the best sound quality for the audience.
Also at work I enjoy seeing people we’ve taken on over the years growing with the company both technically and commercially. I’m so lucky to have an amazing team of colleagues. I’ve also had a couple of amazing bosses over the years who have been inspirational to me, unfortunately a key one was lost to illness a couple of years ago in his thirties, that was very difficult when you lose such a like-minded peer and mentor.
Q: What is the most frustrating aspect of your work?
A: There are not many things that frustrate me at work as I genuinely enjoy the job and its tasks. I’d have to say things like doing end of month expenses and mileage returns, but then everyone has to do the normal routine procedural tasks.
Q: How do you typically approach a soundproofing/acoustics project?
A: There is such a wide range of project requirements that make that a difficult question to answer, first of all careful reading and understanding the needs and aims of the project, then I try to find some test data that we have in our huge bank of project test data as a start point and then I look at the differences of the between the two projects and work through the material requirements from there, touch wood I have got it correct so far.
Q: What would your dream project be?
A: It would be anything that meets my personal criteria. Namely, the acoustics are flawless, the building or structure itself is recognised as a point of excellence in its own right and it is commercially viable, providing the client with a sound return on investment.
Q: What do you think will be the big challenges facing acoustics and construction in the near future?
A: BIM is very likely to change the landscape of acoustics. There are definite advantages: it saves time and money, and it means architects aren’t always faced with the prospect of reinventing the wheel. With schools for example, where the acoustic issues are well documented, I can foresee a need for only twenty base designs, depending on the size of the plot and surrounding environment. My concern is that it may limit the degree of flair that can be applied to a project, and it limits the prospect for innovation that can arise when you’re physically in touch with