Becoming the Noise, Part II: Putting Humans into the Physics Equation

Read part I of this story here.
When I set out for Orfield Labs, I expected the anechoic chamber to capture my full attention. After all, so many people come to experience the quietness that the lab had to start charging for tours, to compensate for lost productivity. As I talked with founder and president Steve Orfield about the evolution of his career and his lab, though, I started to appreciate that the chamber is a tool. And eventually I concluded that, like all tools, the true value lies in what it can do in the hands of an artisan.

Image credit: Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash.

Orfield’s formal education was in philosophy and psychology, but I’d call him a scientist and a disrupter. He is a self-trained expert in acoustic and lighting design, as well an outspoken advocate for humans. The roots of this work trace back to two of his first jobs, tuning cars and selling open office furniture. In the first, he learned the value of testing as he worked on cutting a second or so off his client’s quarter mile time. In the second, he learned the value of designing for the human experience.

As he worked in open office sales, first for someone else and then for himself, customers started complaining that the acoustics and lighting of their newly furnished spaces didn’t measure up to the manufacturer’s claims. In response, Orfield bought sound meters, speech intelligibility meters, and light meters and found out for himself that the customers were right.

This open plan office lab at Orfield Labs is set up to test how sound, light, daylight, thermal comfort and air flow through different configurations of office spaces.
Image Credit: Photo by Kendra Redmond.

His small sales company began offering measurement-based consulting services, helping companies choose the right furnishing for their needs. No one in his company had any open plan office lighting or acoustics training—but, he says, neither did anyone else in the United States at that time. The fact that they were making measurements at all set them apart. Eventually his company dropped the sales side and focused solely on consulting.

In the 1980s, Orfield Labs moved into product testing. Clients like Maytag, Harley Davidson, Medtronic, Sears, Burger King, and Motorola have since sought advice on how to make their products sound more appealing to consumers: quieter, safer, less intrusive, more efficient, or more “signature”. As the only independent multi-sensory laboratory in North America, the lab does similar work with audiovisual, lighting, daylighting, thermal comfort, and indoor air quality.

Today, about half of Orfield Lab’s current business is related to research and development on consumer products, in industries from biomedicine to manufacturing and transportation. The other half is architectural consulting, helping people design spaces—hospitals, schools, offices, and more—with human occupants in mind.

In a nutshell, the lab measures how people feel about and respond to “building performance,”—the lighting, sounds, daylighting, thermal comfort, and indoor air quality in their environment. Then, based on the results, Orfield and his staff recommend how companies and architects can improve the user experience. The lab merges research on things like light quality and sound quality with research on people’s feelings and associations in something they call perceptual market research.
As a physicist and a human, I’m fascinated.

In physics, the role of a person is often relegated to that of an observer. In fact, many physicists wouldn’t mind if humans were even more removed from the equation, given that the perspective, preconceptions, and sometimes the mere presence of an observer can influence the results of an experiment or measurement. Humans are messy and complicated and the more removed we are, in some cases, the easier it is to understand how nature works.

In contrast, Orfield says that analytical measurements have no value except relative to humans. He says that instrumentation measurement is a soft science and people measurement is a hard science, the opposite of what most scientists think.

Orfield doesn’t care about the output rating on a light, he cares how it impacts the vision of a patient when it reflects off a hospital floor. His first concern isn’t the effectiveness of a sleep apnea machine, he cares whether people will find the noise so annoying they throw it out the window.

Most physicists look for symmetry and simplicity. Orfield is happy to live in a complicated, messy world.

What I’ve thought about most since visiting the lab isn’t the cool tools (the anechoic chamber and many others I didn’t have time to mention—such as a state-of-the art acoustic camera for mapping the source of sounds, a reverberation chamber, and a custom-built thermal comfort meter), but the comfortable way hard science and finicky humans fit together in this unique space.

For example, using optics and acoustics, Orfield’s team developed perceptual and cognitive standards for designing spaces for the elderly. The lab collaborated on the first campus in the world for people with dementia designed scientifically to amplify the perceptual sensitivity of its inhabitants. In other words, the space is designed for people with diminished sight, hearing, and other capabilities. There are no patterns on the carpet, walls, or furniture. Room layouts are simple, daylight is plentiful, and the noise level is low. The design choices are research-based, and they are paying off: Staff have actually seen the poor auditory and visual clarity of elders being reversed—with meaningful results. Residents are eating better and engaging more.

Orfield also advised on the design of an autism clinic that opened this summer, constructed with lighting, acoustics, daylighting, thermal comfort, and indoor air quality design features that research shows are more comfortable for hypersensitive people on the autism spectrum.

Orfield’s recommendations often go against traditional schools of thought, perhaps because he came in to science and architecture as an outsider. His advice isn’t always well-received, even when he is paid to give it, but he’s learned to live with that. “I’m a villain in a lot of design projects, as architects have no time for science. I’m working for users,” Orfield told me.

One of the consequences of studying the universe is the realization that humans are not at its center. But, like it or not, humans are at the center of the world we live in—and maybe it’s not always a bad thing to be more than an observer.

Kendra Redmond

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