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The lightbulb moment

The idea of a ‘lightbulb moment’ originates back to the early twentieth-century cartoon: Felix the Cat. With limited printing capabilities in the silent-film era, the illustrators cemented the concept of a light bulb as a new idea. Adam Fox, director of vibration control specialist Mason UK, explains the similar lightbulb moments architects and developers are having today, based on new vibration control capabilities.

Felix was the most popular cartoon character of the silent-film era, but of course, we’re no longer in this silent era of cinema. In fact, cinemas are a huge source of noise and building one takes a lot of planning and noise control. Architects or developers may have felt limited in their options previously, when starting projects like these. Well, luckily for them, their options are much greater than they may realise.

Let’s first explain the fundamental problems of vibration that all industries contend with. Vibration is a two-fold problem. Firstly, is the human element. Vibration can manifest itself as noise through many different pathways. For example, loud music can cause walls and ceiling to vibrate, and this energy in turn, re-radiates as audible noise as it causes the air particles to vibrate. The flat surfaces in essence, act as a speaker. Similarly, if someone drops a weight in the gym, or a train goes passed a nearby building, structural vibration can manifest as thuds and rumbles. Remember, this energy has to go somewhere. This problem is exacerbated by the trend for hard surfaces on floors and walls, which means fewer soft furnishings and details to absorb and diffuse noise.

The second vibration-causing problem is process disruption. In some manufacturing processes, someone closing a door two floors below is enough to spoil a high-resolution process such as semiconductor manufacturing. Vibration is the enemy and the cost of discarding a semiconductor chip is extreme, which is why businesses make the investment to isolate the sensitive equipment involved.

Similar is true of electron microscope applications in scientific research facilities and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines in hospitals, which are also very sensitive to vibration. Buildings that contain these devices must be thought out very carefully.

Now here is the lightbulb moment: Developers and architects may not be aware of how far you can push vibration isolation with the right experts on board. A derelict car park by a train station may have previously been written off as a potential development location, when in fact there are ways to isolate a building from the train vibration and prevent the inhabitants from being disturbed by noise.

Strategies include installing isolating elements between floors, walls, ceilings or even foundations to break the transmission path and absorb vibration before it dissipates into nuisance noise. Similarly, locally isolating specific sensitive equipment is an effective solution for many sectors.

These vibration-fixes mean you can build high-grade accommodation on previously undesirable areas, such as close to a railway line. Gyms can be installed in disused office spaces. You will need the right vibration control specialists working on the project, skilled and experienced specialists as every project is different, there is no ‘one fits all’ answer. It’s also important to ask, ‘will these products built into the structure last for the lifespan of the building?’ rather than solely asking ‘which is cheaper?’. Quality engineering is vital to save future cost.

Structural engineers may not know how to write an isolation specification, or what is a reasonable expectation for longevity. Here lies a second lightbulb moment: you can specify the lifespan of the parts going into acoustic projects.

This lightbulb moment hasn’t been the result of new products or materials, but rather years of experience gained in the industry, taking on new and challenging projects. We understand a lot more about the dynamics of impact, through our own research and years in the field. Mason products last.

There are likely to have been projects turned down because of vibration problems in the past, which today, could be viable. For example, plans for a swimming pool in a building may have been omitted, when in fact, it could be effectively isolated. Make sure to engage with the acoustic consultant early in the process, to solve these engineering challenges quickly.

Developers and architects have many more options today than they had a decade ago. It is important not to rule out options because you think it ‘isn’t possible’, without knowing the full extent of vibration control options. Feeling enlightened by these lightbulb moments?

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The right to regenerate

In January 2021, the Government proposed the ‘Right to Regenerate’, meaning councils will have to sell old, derelict buildings to the public, unless there is a very compelling reason not to do so. Here Steve Hart, director of vibration control engineering firm, Mason UK, explains the positives behind this initiative, but also some important considerations developers must make in the renovation process.

The latest figures show there were over 25,000 vacant council owned homes and according to recent freedom of information (FOI) data over 100,000 empty council-owned garages last year. The ‘Right to Regenerate’ proposals would make it easier for the public and local communities to redevelop and transform eyesores, taking control of unused local land or buildings and transforming them into something they want in their area.

As part of the proposal, housing Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP said: “We are cutting through red tape so that communities can make better use of available land and derelict buildings, which means more new homes, businesses and community assets.

“Millions of people will now be able to buy that empty property, unused garage or parcel of land and turn it into something good for them and their community.”

There will certainly be some new opportunities for property development and renovation, but how straightforward will the process really be?

In response to the news, RIBA President, Alan Jones, said, “While giving a ‘new lease of life’ to unloved buildings might seem like an easy win that could speed up the development of new housing or community spaces, the process of procuring these empty properties – and the criteria for acquiring – must be carefully considered.

“This policy has the potential to help regenerate local areas, but this must be done with the highest regard to quality, safety and sustainability – it’s essential the Government moves forward in the right way.”

Property developers must remember that some of the buildings they have their eyes on may not lend themselves to the venue they envision, for instance a gym, night club or hotel. This is for two main reasons. Firstly, the old structure may not have been designed to take on the loads of the new application. For example, an old Victorian warehouse or a modern steel frame building was never built to take on the impact and weight drops of a gym.

Similarly, the structure probably wasn’t designed with the right acoustic considerations. Turning any old building into a night club or gym without the right noise and vibration isolation will inevitably lead to noise complaints from nearby residents and businesses and will face some huge hurdles in obtaining planning permission.

Rather than making a poor decision when purchasing a building from the council, speak with an acoustic consultant who can help decide if the space is a viable gym, night club or other venue type.

In many cases, seemingly unviable options turn out to be viable with the right vibration control specialists onboard. For some buildings, floating floors with box in box structures could be the answer. The flooring element consists of a heavy slab of concrete suspended on springs, to isolate the vibration and prevent it from transmitting to other parts of the building. In the case of free weight areas in gyms, this is an incredibly useful option.

Additionally, acoustic suspended ceilings and walls, if specified and engineered correctly, will greatly attenuate noise and vibration levels, which not only benefits the users in different parts of the building, but also nearby residents trying to get a good night’s sleep.

With the right considerations, even affordable housing projects can be made viable on old brownfield sites near industry or rail. This may be surprising with planning consent for residential being highly dependent on keeping noise and vibration to acceptable limits.

Mason UK can work with your structural engineer and acoustician to establish the most suitable proposal, ensuring the building and its new purpose can meet noise regulations. With the introduction of floating floors and isolated ceilings, even residential projects near underground rail can be isolated from the foundations up.

The ‘Right to Regenerate’ proposal is a welcome one, as long as the right design considerations are taken.

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