How the Sense of Touch and Sound in Architecture Impacts Design Intent

Studies are being carried out that suggest that the brain uses vibration (touch) and frequency (sound waves), in a manner that unites these two senses. This means that if a person is good at sensing touch vibrations, then they are also good at hearing sound frequencies — and vice versa. Thus, the senses of touch and sound in architecture are linked, and you as an architect can use this information to make your building designs even better.

I would like to think that architects today are factoring human senses, so that at various points within their design, occupants are invited to use their senses — in a holistic and harmonic way, making architecture greater than the sum of its parts. This is an advantage to designing with the senses in mind, where your architecture can speak to its occupants through different languages and on many levels. And the amazing finding here is that those sensory languages are related to one another in unexpected ways, where your occupants can “feel sound”. (1)

Of course, this immediately highlights the importance of paying attention during design phases to the sound and touch senses (and not solely relying on the visual sense to realize your design vision). Additionally, these findings also illustrate how you should not treat each of the senses as separate entities within your design, but rather as different languages that speak to one another, play off of one another and help each other out to paint a clearer picture about what is experientially happening.

In order to make best use of such findings that link the senses together, I would start by asking yourself questions about your building project design, like…

3 Key Questions to Ask Yourself That Can Increase Your Design’s Potential

  1. Do any mechanical systems or electrical systems within the building create physical vibrations and/or noise frequencies that interfere with ongoing activities and behaviors that your occupants engage in? Very simply, this could mean that a loud HVAC system, for example, might interfere with inter-office communication within an office building. Or perhaps, certain building vibrations seem to amplify ambient sounds making it more difficult to concentrate along with increased stress while working.
  2. I would also ask yourself about what opportunities you have been missing in your designs by not thinking about the senses as related to one another. Perhaps there is a great opportunity within your museum design, for instance, to create a meaningful and memorable point about a certain exhibit or cultural emphasis. By appealing to different sensory modalities, your occupants will better connect and engage with their surroundings — by better absorbing, interacting and remembering that which they learn in your buildings.
  3. Another time to consider the overlapping between the senses of touch and sound in architecture is when creating an event design either within your long-standing building project or within your one-time event installation. In either case, it can be extremely powerful to take advantage of multiple sensory languages within your design — just imagine a theater, stadium or arena design. Of course, in these cases many designers already do consider the visual with acoustic to create amazing effects. But what about those vibration frequencies felt by an audience? And will what they physically touch right around them affect their perception of the event that is live on the somewhat distant stage.

Additionally, it is helpful to consider that where your occupants hear something, they will have increased sensitivity to feeling something by touching, such as an architectural building material. To explain more about how this works, please read the following excerpt from Devin Powell’s article:

“Other researchers have shown that hearing a sound can boost touch sensitivity. […] Frequency may be a two-way street in the brain that unites these two senses, says Jeffrey Yau, a neuroscientist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. A vibration that has a higher or lower frequency than a sound, he found, tends to skew pitch perception up or down. Sounds can also bias whether a vibration is perceived.” (1)

Touch and Sound in Architecture Can Strengthen Your Building Design Intent

So to make your architectural space the best it can be, consider how your occupants sense it through their different modalities — but do not just consider them separately from one another. Think about how each affects the other, where in this case touch affects hearing and hearing affects touch. Then you can consider what happens when your occupant sees and hears at the same time. Ask yourself if what they hear complements what they see or what they feel through touch. If they are not strategically designed with that in mind, a lack of harmonization can deter your design vision from being realized by your occupant. So, be careful not to reduce the beauty or effectiveness of your design, and thus, make it more difficult for your occupant to function healthfully within it. Think of the different sensory modalities as you design to better achieve your overall design intent and potential.


(1) Powell, Devin. What it means to Feel the Noise – Scientists Explore Overlapping Sensations of Sound, Touch. Science News. May 26, 2011.

Image Credit: © Marcus Vegas | Flickr


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