San Francisco-based architecture firm EHDD has lately been at the forefront of many of the city's high-profile projects. Most recently, EHDD's work at SFMOMA's transformed Phyllis Wattis Theater is making headlines with the museum's long-awaited reopening. In this Q&A, EHDD Principal and President Duncan Ballash shares his thoughts on the importance of sound in architecture, and the vital factors and considerations that go into making each project the best it can be. Hear from Ballash on why sound and acoustics are a key consideration in architecture.
Q: San Francisco is known for its tolerance and forward-thinking policies. How has EHDD's location shaped its philosophy over the years?
Ballash: Joe Esherick founded EHDD in San Francisco in 1946 after moving west from the East Coast. His goal was to develop architecture that was appropriate to the region—its weather, lifestyle, and culture. This resulted in buildings designed from the inside out with an emphasis on the user experience. Since style was not a consideration, Joe focused on light, connections to the outdoors, how spaces would be used, and how they would perform as environments for people.
Q: EHDD's motto is, "Civilization makes the greatest advances when innovators, visionaries, and creative thinkers dare to imagine a better world." How has this philosophy impacted your project design?
Ballash: As an institutional architecture firm, most of our clients' missions focus on advancing civilization in some way. As we've been imbedded in our clients' visions over the years, EHDD's mission has evolved to be in line with our clients' goals of making a better world. This requires an attitude where every project builds upon our past work—we're constantly pushing design solutions forward.
Q: Delivering an extraordinary user experience is one of your main goals—that mission is also shared by Meyer Sound. What processes have helped you to deliver on that promise?
Ballash: It requires taking the time to truly understand a client's needs—how a space will be used and how it can be made better than what they had before. This is accomplished through a series of workshops where our main role is listening and provoking conversation.
Attention to detail is important—visual and spatial esthetics, touch, balanced light, and acoustics all play a vital role in creating a space that feels comfortable and works for its intended use. We often use full-scale mock ups to test designs and materials for meeting our design goals.
Q: The New York Times' achitecture critic Michael Kimmelman recently wrote, "Sound may be invisible or only unconsciously perceived, but that doesn't make it any less an architectural material than wood, glass, concrete, stone, or light." Do you agree? How does this idea inform your work?
Ballash: I have never thought of sound as a material, but more of an interaction with the materials—much as the relationship between a building and light. What will the interactions and the opportunities be? How it will be used? The play of light and sound is what animates a space, as well as its relationship to other spaces within a building. These properties help define a space's character and feel.
Q: Today there is often a premium on designing multi-use spaces, and that goal can bring huge acoustical challenges. How do you approach these sonic challenges in your design process?
Ballash: Acoustic flexibility is just as important as layout flexibility. Understanding how a space may be used, what the challenges are, and what options should be considered are all important when starting the design process.