Orfield acknowledges that perceptual research has to be done somewhat indirectly—unlike, say, traditional focus groups. “If you want to know how the consumer will respond to your product or environment, the one thing you can never usefully do is ask them, because they don’t know,” he says. Harley-Davidson’s participants “scored about half of the sounds negatively, even though before—and after—the study, they all said they loved everything about the sound of a Harley and wouldn’t change a thing.”
The result? Harley changed the sounds enough to be in compliance with EU standards for 1998.
For Orfield, the importance of sound is personal, even intimate. In 1990, he received a mechanical heart valve. It fixed his heart defect, but what was supposed to be a 90-day recovery turned into two years of sleepless nights. The valve’s steady, repetitive clicking was driving him crazy.
Orfield did some sound-quality research on his valve and found that it required a whopping 82 decibels of external sound—comparable to a leaf blower—to muffle the clicking in his chest. He learned to manage the problem by undergoing sleep hypnosis, running a fan to block the noise, and finding a pillow soft enough to not occlude the sound. (The harder the pillow, the more his one ear is occluded, or closed off, and the louder the sound of his valve, since that sound is conducted via air and bone conduction.)
Today, some manufacturers measure the sound of their mechanical heart valves in Orfield Labs’ anechoic chamber. Anechoic chambers, Orfield says, are the perfect listening environment because they allow you to “hear critically.” Orfield purchased the chamber from appliance maker Sunbeam’s Chicago lab facility, bringing it to Minnesota in 1995.
In one of Orfield Labs’ other sound facilities, consultant Mike Role cues up a sound-masking demo. He plays a recording of a woman’s voice scheduling appointments on the phone; then he turns on a sound-masking system that generates “white noise,” which sounds like a chugging train and can render her words unintelligible to nearby workers. Role helps clients tune their sound-masking systems (which often don’t work correctly after installation) or recommends specifications for a new one.
“I go into an open office and get a reading of the HVAC, the ambient noise, the office babble, the office machinery,” he says. “I measure reverb time of the room, get an idea of the volume of the space, how the noise travels within the space. If I hear complaints about a person with an obnoxious voice, I record that, too.”
Role came to Orfield Labs 11 years ago as an intern from architectural drafting school. “I’ve ventured into just about everything this multidisciplinary place has to offer,” he says. At one point, Steve Orfield even sent him back to school to learn about lighting. “But after I finished, Steve said: ‘Forget everything they taught you!’ They taught us about watts per square foot and foot-candle values, and how to distribute your fixtures. But they didn’t consider the fact that when the light has too much glare, it disables the eye. That’s what Steve brings into the equation.”
And when it comes to productivity, light matters.