Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Quietest Room on Earth

There’s a room in south Minneapolis that has been garnering quite a bit of attention for Steve Orfield and his labs ever since it was named Guiness Book of World Records’ “Quietest Place on Earth” in 2005. But, however remarkable the room itself is, it is not the only thing for which Orfield deserves a great deal of recognition. Orfield Labs is a corporate research and architectural consulting company, specializing in things like product performance testing. Sounds pretty boring. But as it turns out, it’s not. Along with his one-of-a-kind room, Orfield takes a very unique approach to product testing in general, going to levels that most people would never take into consideration.

The room itself is actually an anechoic chamber, designed to absorb all noise. It is a room within a room within a room, insulated many times over with double steel walls to effectively eliminate any outside noise pollution. The inside walls are covered with special acoustic wedges and the floor is mesh to eliminate any echo. The measured background noise inside is -9.4 decibels. It is so quiet that you can hear your body working, your voice sounds different because it has nothing to reverberate off of, and, if you stay inside long enough, it can cause visual and aural hallucinations. Yes, the room is a novelty in and of itself, but what makes it truly unique is the research that it is used for.

As a corporate research consulting company, Orfield Labs uses the anechoic chamber along with a separate reverberation chamber (among other labs, as Orfield does not ONLY specialize in acoustics) to test items such as windows or adhesives and give them ratings based on various acoustic factors. Taking things a step further, Orfield also specializes in perceptual research. The perceptual market research team uses the facilities to analyze how different sounds, usually the sounds of products, make people feel. According to Orfield, an anechoic chamber is the most effectively place to conduct such research, because their lack of sound reverberations allows participants to “hear critically.”

Focus groups come in and listen to the sounds of everyday items, from dishwashers to disc drives, and rate them according to how powerful and efficient or cheap and ineffective they sound. In some instances, such as a consultation with Harley Davidson, they even examine the power of acoustics as a distinctive branding quality, looking at what sound makes a Harley a Harley. In short, they analyze how the acoustics of an item affect consumers. In terms of traditional product testing it’s a far cry from giving out cut and dried performance ratings.

Steve Orfield, the man behind Orfield Labs, was originally a successful office furniture salesman. He became interested in research in the 1970s after getting many complaints from buyers about the acoustics and privacy of the office units that he was selling. Once he began, he became more and more interested in research, and by the later 1970s had completely switched over from sales. In 1990, after a slump in the 80s, Orfield bought the old recording studio that would become the current Orfield Labs.

Orfield opened the lab with collaboration in mind and meant for it to be a place "for professionals to gather and share their research on sound and space design." Shortly after the lab's opening, Orfield started the Sound Quality Working Group and later the Open Plan working group, the first working group focused on office settings. Collaboration continues to be an important aspect of Orfield Labs, especially between disciplines. They employ experts in varying fields, from engineering to physics to psychology, to get input on all aspects of a product.

Aside from an interest stemming from his time as a salesman, Orfield has a more personal connection to sound research: his mechanical heart valve. The mechanical heart valve that Orfield needed was making so much noise that it was keeping him up at night. Orfield used his own facilities and experience in sound testing to figure out which pillow would cause less sound reverberations and minimize the valve noise, allowing him to sleep. The anechoic chamber is now used by many heart valve manufacturers, to test the sound quality of their products.

From his world record setting room, to his unique approaches to product testing, Steve Orfield has been coming up with creative ways to help companies test products and solve problems for decades now. And if his recent claim that he is currently developing "a whole new area of psychology" in architecture is any indication, he won't be stopping anytime soon.


  1. First: THIS IS SO COOL.

    Second: What a great example of interdisciplinary collaboration and use of a creative product. I love that Orfield transformed a problem he had, into a solution that he could keep manipulating to solve the problems of others. I think the science behind auditory perception is incredible and conducting experiments in such an austere environment must be so beneficial. I wonder how much research he is doing himself? and in what areas? I think the possibilities for this room and its technology are virtually endless. Great find!

  2. There are two reasons why this guy and this room fit perfectly into our class:
    1. Just today, we talked about motivation. Orfield's motivation seems to come from both internal and external sources. He obviously needed the room for his company's research, and was inevitably under some sort of pressure to contribute to the company's work by creating something like this room. However, he also was looking for a solution to his own problem with his heart valve, which served as a motivating force in creating something he could use for himself.
    2. Every creator has a way in which he or she best creates. For some, a messy work environment is best. For others, they need to be around their peers. There are many people who require silence or solitude to produce their best work, and it seems like Orfield's room would be ideal for them. The aural and visual hallucinations experienced in the room may also contribute to the formation of creative ideas as well.

    I'd love to visit the room. Cool post!


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