Interview #6 : Kenric Van Wyk from Acoustics by Design

Sixth video interview with an acoustical consultant in the US ! I am very proud of this talk because I discovered a totally new application of acoustics for me : acoustics for worship spaces ! Read to know more about it !

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Mr Van Wyk talks about his company, his work, his projects and he shares some useful tips at the end of the interview. I was really impressed because he has a lot of hats in the acoustics industry and I still wonder how time does he need to sleep !

Here are the main points we spoke about :

General Presentation

Acoustics by Design

Acoustics by Design (ABD) is an independent acoustical consulting firm founded in 1962. They are based in Grand Rapids (MI) with offices in Detroit (MI) and Portland (OR). The 12-staff deals with acoustics for performing arts venues so as to create a great performing environment, but also with noise control for places near roads, railways or airports. They finally do expert witness work, for example they use their expertise as a proof when people are suing neighbors or companies because of issues related to noise.

Kenric’s job in particular

Kenric is the owner of the company for the last 12 years and he is also the president. Among his several roles within the company, he is principal consultant on all of the projects (as Mr Lenz is for example). He also works with his client development manager to understand clients needs and to introduce the company wherever they go. Finally, he has a managing role, making sure that every project is conducted the way it should be. Outside of his work at ABD, Kenric is also president of the National Council of Acoustical Consultants (NCAC).  The NCAC is a 150 companies network specialized in acoustics. After 10 years on the board, he was elected for a 2-year term. His role as president is to help enhance the role of acoustical consulting throughout the world. And this includes annual meetings and conferences in the US or abroad.

Why acoustics ?

Kenric has always been a performer. He used to be a musician, a singer and a thespian. As he said, he enjoyed it very much and this experience gave him an artistic background. In the meantime, he really enjoyed math, science and engineering at school and he discovered that these two things can be combined ! So he went to Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI) to earn a bachelor of science in mechanical engineering. Then he went to Purdue University because there was a specialized lab there. He had the opportunity to learn a lot about an area on which he didn’t have a lot of technical knowledge. He earned there a master of science in mechanical engineering acoustics. The more I interview people, the more I see people like me : People passionate about music and arts in general, but also a strong interest in science. I personnaly think you have to appreciate these two fields to work in acoustics.

His best project so far ?

It’s a challenging question because I have been working on over  2500 projects in 10 years.

The project he is the most proud of is his work for his former college Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI). It’s a liberal arts school with a 5000 seats auditorium where he used to perform as a musician, singer or thespian. The auditorium is 40 years old and Acoustics by Design was asked to renovate it about 4 years ago. There role was to enhance acoustics as well as the A/V systems to make it -as he says- a shining star. By adding a backshell and a ceiling shell, they could solve the two main problems in this hall : performers can hear themselves and create a real ensemble and this energy is sent better to the audience.

Calvin College Fine Arts Center

The Calvin College Fine Arts Center. This is why I want to work in acoustics.

An acoustical consultant in particular

The profile of an acoustical consultant

According to Kenric, here are the 3 main qualities an acoustical consultant needs to have :

  • A technical background : As he says, it’s a critical component to anyone’s training. Indeed, understanding engineering is needed to find solutions that suits the problem.
  • Attention to art and aesthetics : Though acoustical consultants work with architects who take care of this part, you also need to understand this side because it doesn’t work very well to create a space taht is acousticly pleasing but not aestheticaly pleasing.
  • Excellent communication skills : An acoustical consultant works with many different people and has to have good speech and technical writing skills. “If you’re good at it, it’s a huge benefit.”

Finally, an acoustical consultant has always the same passion for engineering than for music or every performing art.

It goes hand in hand.

A typical day in the life of an acoustical consultant

A typical day of a consultant is a combination of many parameters : phonecalls, emails, personal meetings, video meetings, analysis of reports and data, and recommendations and conclusions on what needs to be done on a project. At Acoustics by Desgin, “nobody works on an island” and there is a significant communication of ideas. About Kenric’s typical day, his answer his simple :

When I get a typical day, I’ll actually tell you.

His different hats take him on various places. For example, as an expert witness, he works with lawyers. That means he can be on site one day doing measurements, and being in the court room the next day as the expert. He also does many speaking engagements. He takes part into about 50 events a year, such as conferences, training seminars, or lunch&learns. As president of the NCAC, he also has online meeting with directors and board members. He’s a lot on the road. Luckily for him, he loves to travel and though he admits there is nothing glorious about a business travel, it does sometimes have its perks. For instance, he can sometimes travel with his family of go to places where he couldn’t go on his own (eg Australia). Finally, he as the advantage of not needing a lot of sleep, I think this helps a lot to handle this fast life !

How do they conduct a project ?

At Acoustics by Design (ABD), every project is conducted by at least 2 people. Every project has its own length, it can be short (4 weeks) or longer (12 months or more). Every projects goes like this : A proposal following a client inquiry, one meeting (or 2 if needed), measurements, analysis, report and then, engineers follow up of the work. At ABD, every employee has about 15 to 20 projects to handle in the same time.

As you can see, I was very surprised by this number so I asked Mr Van Wyk to tell me more.Actually, they don’t have exactly 15 projects to do in the same time. For example, when there is a long project, they sometimes just need to follow up to make sure the projects goes at it should. But multitasking is still very important because you might be working on an environmental noise project one day, and on a performance hall the next day. As Kenric says, some firms chose to pigeonhole their employees and focus on what they do best. They see it differently. They like to work with well-experienced engineers so that’s why the latter are working on many projects in the same time. Kenric adds that being an engineer helps a lot in terms of organization. Indeed, engineers have this special ability to “compartimentalize [their] thinking”.

Finally, they make sure not to overload employees during their 40-hour workweek. If one is overloaded, they can easily shift work from one to another. Plus they have invested in work/life balance to ensure that every employee has its own work and private life. They also try to create a flexible work schedule to balance days (when employees need to travel or to do measurements). They also favor communication and every employee has the ability to call every other member of the staff or every client directly.

Indiana Weselyan University Chapel

The Indiana Wesleyan University Chapel. You can see that you need good acoustics so everybody can hear what is going on on stage.

Acoustics myths debunked

This is something I really wanted to talk about with Kenric. When I was searching for companies to interview, I read an article called “4 Acoustics Myths Debunked”. I discovered that there is a real market for worship facilities, something I was not aware of in France. So I wanted to know more about it. In the United States, there is the contemporary church movement. This new concept revolves around the fact that churches are not churches, and they can sometimes include gyms or special rooms (eg for group therapies).  Though this movement tends to be larger and larger, their budget remains tight. So when it comes to acoustics, dollars need to be spent in the best way possible. However, people are ofen prejudiced and in this article, Kenric debunks 4 majors myths about acoustics

Myth #1 : Acoustics can be addressed later

Why not throwing some panels after building the church ? It may be a good question, but wouldn’t it be better if no panels were needed at all ? Acoustical consultants can design spaces that sound good and that won’t need any panel later on. Sometimes, nothing can be done but at least, acoustical consultants can tell you that you will need panels, and how much will it cost.

Myth #2 : Only the Worship Center Needs Treatment

Why not working only on the worship center ? Good question once again, but nowadays, a church isn’t just a church, there are many other spaces for the community. Therefore, don’t let them away because if just one room sounds good, it’s useless. If all the rooms are designed correctly, they will all sound good and you will save money.

Myth #3 : Acoustical Panels Are Ugly

Seriously ? Today, there are many acoustical materials that can suit your tastes ! Whether your want a wood tone, a plaster or a drywall, there is necessarily the right panel for what you need. And done well, it can look great !

Myth #4 : Electronics Can Fix Anything

I think Kenric’s words are worth every other argument :

If you design a bad room, at the end of the day, you pretty much have a bad room.

No matter what you use in terms of electronics, it will be less costly to design the right space first.

Sait Mary's Cathedral, Lafayette.

Sait Mary’s Cathedral, Lafayette. Perfect example where acoustics don’t ruin the aesthetics of the space.

Perspectives

His short-term projects

There are many projects on his desk right now ! First, he will go to Portland (OR) to continue the process of introducing the company to local architects and engineers. He will also take part in meetings, lunch&learns at the American Institute of Architects there. For instance, a special conference will be about acoustical requirements for corporate, education and healthcare facilities. From October 27 to October 31, there will be the Fall 2014 Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. Unfortunately, Kenric will miss it because he will be testifying as an expert witness. As the NCAC president, he has to write the president’s message for the newsletter. And finally, he will prepare his trip to Melbourne in November.

His long-term projects

Kenric will definitely stay in the company. His major role is to continue to grow the firm. They want to double its size by hiring 1 to 2 people every year (good news for me !). As a larger firm involves larger projects, he will also train his employees to Revit, a special drawing software used by architects with which you can set every parameter of a wall when drawing it. Then, you can predict how a wall will react acoustically. There will also focus on LEED projects, as Felicia Doggett told us previously. By the way, he is proud to say that Grand Rapids (MI) holds the title of most LEED projects in a city ! What about openning another office ? Right now, he didn’t confirmed, but who knows ?

Cornerstone Church

The Cornerstone Church.

One more thing : Some tips for people like me

  • Get the best technical education that you can. Find leaders and find out where they teach, or look for universities with specific programs.
  • Be a musician or a performer, whatever it is. If you’re not a performer, find another art form because it helps a lot.
  • Do your best to improve technical oral and writing skills because communication is important.
  • Rub shoulders with peers, go to acoustical conferences, write letters and emails because you can meet fantastic resources and referrals !

One more time, thanks again to Kenric Van Wyk from Acoustics by Design ! A new interview is coming ! But that will be for the next post !

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