Sibley Volcanic Preserve

I’ve been searching for some quiet experiences around the San Francisco Bay Area.  What is it that makes a quiet place? Is it merely a lack of noise, or what are the qualities which create quiet space? My hunch is that a quiet place might even be a loud place, but to understand why that could work, I needed to start with the volume turned down. The early morning is the right time to begin.


I drove up to Sibley Volcanic Preserve at 5:30am. On the road up the hill, my car cut above the blanket of fog draped over the Bay. I stepped out, and it was warmer than I was expecting. And so quiet. A slice of moon with its unlit body was suspended three hands above the horizon. The distant rush of the 24 gurgled down below.


A path invited, little critters scattering as I stepped closer. I held a shotgun microphone, headphones cocked over one ear. Every breath in was a banquet of sage and flowering weeds, dusted with the acrid scent of eucalyptus and damp leaves. I walked along the path scouring for sounds of birds and insects, little creatures scurrying in the bushes. I dropped down into the ancient caldera where a labyrinth signaled a place to take pause.


The air was 10 degrees cooler in the bowl. I walked, turned and took in the views, confusing the rabbits who remain crouched in the bushes. I aimed my benign shotgun but to the beasts it might as well have been a rod of lightning. They remained hidden and unknown.


Back to the parking lot, the city pulling its starter rope, I stood alone, a traveler by the road.

Now at my workshop, where construction continues on the Vessel, I am distilling some of the “quietness” found in the early morning into a space which can be entered at any time of day. Quiet is a broad dynamic range. Quiet demands coherence but not necessarily continuity or predictability.

The following audio track mixes some of my field recordings up at Sibley with a meditative synthetic audio loop. This is an intro for a broader soundscape to be experienced inside the Vessel. More to follow soon.


A Cyborg’s Material

Over the past two months I have been working out the interior finishes of the quiet room. My choice of finish after numerous tests for sound qualities is acrylic (PMMA). With transducers attached to the back of the panel, it sounds amazing. Another feature of acrylic that I like is how clean it feels. Even as a synthetic product, there is a certain comfort I find in it. Acrylic is found in many medical implants (see PMMA bone cement) as it is compatible with human tissue. I like this idea of acrylic merging with human tissue. Acrylic: a cyborg’s material of choice.

Floor sheets temporarily placed. I will be sanding them down

So two months is a long time to be messing around with a couple walls, a ceiling, and a floor. First I was delayed by a supplier, and then I created my own delays during fabrication. It turns out, building with acrylic is difficult. Perhaps there is a reason we don’t see it prolifically as a building material. While it is flexible and resilient as a sheet, once you start to operate on it, it acquires a mind of its own.

Bending acrylic introduces a lot of stress in the panel. Turns out you can’t create notches at the end. It works like a weak link in a chain. Stresses in the panel follow the notch and ride it all the way across the panel.

The material is not terribly forgiving. I have been routing out slots to permit the ventilation system to work, but every tiny bump on the router creates a chip that cannot be patched up. One must cut with conviction, knowing you get one shot at it.

Routing ventilation slots in the floor panels

I have an 8-ft long heating coil that came over from China. Applying about 75 volts gets me a nice hot coil to heat up the acrylic and fold it. Trouble is, bending over such a long length creates a lot of stress in the sheet. Sometimes it goes well, but if the material has heated unevenly, which seems often to be the case, I get problems.

Bending acrylic with a heat coil.
The heat coil setup includes a bucket of water with a pump at the bottom to keep the surrounding aluminum housing from overheating.

The solution for now is do less bending, and work on getting the prototype finished. The next steps are attaching the transducers to the wall panels, and getting ready for LED lighting.

Ceiling panel installed. I hand drilled a few thousand holes to allow the ceiling to provide some sound absorption.

What else about using acrylic in this application is like a cyborg? I have to return to the original definition of cyborg by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline. Paraphrasing, a cyborg is a system made up partly of a man and partly of a machine which enables a being to live in an environment different from its normal one. I think it is interesting to think of a cyborg as not necessarily a surgically modified person. Could a cyborg simply be the enclosure (architecture) and a normal person inside of it? The acrylic then acts as a medium between man and machine, providing feedback between body and environment. More soon on this idea.

What I am building

“What am I building?”  I ask it nearly every day. Often the answer is the same, a convenient cloak for the numerous uncertainties and possibilities the question engenders: I am building a quiet room.

Keep it simple. The walls are made of OSB (oriented strand board) and foam insulation. I have built a door and a corner window out of bent acrylic. When I close the door, the sound outside drops a considerable amount, although I can still hear the other tenants in the warehouse using saws, forklifts, and generators. So it’s a quieter room.

Quiet is a good starting point. Not silence, or anything approaching the sound isolation achieved by anechoic chambers. I am working to transport someone from the multi-channel drone of a larger environment into the single channel stream of a small space. So far I have used the room as a lunch room, a meditation room, a phone booth, and with two friends and some Bad Religion, a rock-out room. It’s a place to get away from the clamor of my workshop and contemplate the future of architecture.


The construction of the walls is important. I am building a room-within-a-room. The outer layer consists of the OSB wall and closed-cell foam insulation to dampen sound. The inner room is entirely detached from the exterior room save for the floor, which rests on rubber isolation pads.


The room also achieves “quiet” by adding sound. Here’s another distinction between silence and quiet. Silence is oppressive and close-ended. Quiet is generative and open-ended.  Silence as a verb is what we do to people when we don’t want to hear their voices. Silence as a thing is an eerie void, a vacuum of life, a blankness. Silence is the lack of all sound. Quiet, on the other hand, is a condition which permits the creation of sounds which fits into a coherent mood or atmosphere. Quiet is a space in which we can communicate clearly.


I can add sound to the room via transducers. Four transducers are installed in the floor, with another sixteen planned for the walls. The beauty of the transducer is that the technology is invisible. Whatever a transducer is attached to becomes the vibrating surface, akin to a speaker cone. The finished walls are the speakers, with the transducer operating in the interstitial layers, heard but not seen.


Creating a quiet room requires cutting off and controlling the intake of air from outside the room. Hence I have had to give the ventilation system a lot of thought. A fan placed directly over an opening will allow too much noise from outside. The fan noise itself also needs to be cared for. Air also has to be pulled in from below.


Considering the practicality (the necessity) of bringing air into the room is also an opportunity to think about the air itself. Architecture is a vessel for air, and air carries lots of things with it.  Warmth, coolness, dampness, dryness, smells, flavors, narcotics, ….sound. An architecture about sound is like an architecture about air. Air is not perceived through the photograph (unless it carries moisture, dust, or smoke). Air is typically transparent in a photograph of architecture. We are meant to experience architecture as though air is inconsequential. Yet the most memorable experiences I have had walking through a building or in a space is how the air touched me. The smell of an earth floor, touching my nostrils. The sound of a fish market in Tunisia, crushing my ears. I like that saying, “Sound is touch at a distance” because there is a lot to architecture which is about touch, and touch at a distance.

Coming up next: the interior walls. I have been testing out acrylic for the walls, so far with very positive results. It sounds great with the transducers. I also really like the effect of the ghosted white acrylic. The material itself is ambient. It diffuses light and, employed in this quiet room, it will be diffusing sound as well. Over the next few weeks I will be installing wall panels and experimenting with the kind of  sound I will be playing within the quiet room.


Join Me


Is it possible to find refuge from the din of 21st century life? Over the next few months I am building a room to find what “quiet” means today, and how to make time and space for such a place in the everyday. Join me on this expedition: twitter, instagram, periscope, and regular updates right here.