Take a moment and think about the quietest room you’ve ever laid down in; the quietest, stillest place you’ve ever been. No matter how peaceful, how serene, there was still some sound: the rush of water in pipes, the hum of electricity in the walls, the breeze gently blowing, insects chirping; the ambient noise of nature, of life.
If you take a 15-minute car ride from downtown Minneapolis, you’ll find a nondescript concrete building with ivy climbing its exterior walls. Orfield Laboratories sits a block away from a bowling alley called Memory Lanes and directly across the street from Skol Liquors. Inside Orfield Laboratories is an anechoic chamber that has been certified by Guinness as the quietest place in the world.
That still bedroom you were in? The ambient noise was probably about 30 dBA, or A-weighted decibels — the relative loudness of sound perceived by the human ear. This is a logarithmic scale, so every 10 dBA, you’re either doubling or halving the loudness or quietness. At zero dBA, the human ear can no longer perceive sound. The anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories was certified by Guinness at -9.4 dBA in 2004 and -13 dBA in 2013, both for one hour measurements. But over shorter periods, they’ve conducted tests on the chamber that have given readings of up to between negative 22 and negative 23 dBA.
That’s just in terms of what instruments can read in the room. The human ear has no way of telling that difference in sound (or lack thereof). If a room or chamber is 0 dBA or lower, you won’t hear anything. Nothing at all. The difference between -9.4 dBA and -23 dBA sounds the same to our pitiful flesh-ears. But it made a difference to me. I wanted to be in the quietest room on Earth.
A handful of years ago, I read about Orfield Laboratories and the quiet room in an in-flight magazine. Ever since, I’ve been mildly obsessed with being able to go into that room. Finally, last week, I was given the chance.
Perhaps it’s because my mind moves so quickly, all the time, that I’m so fascinated by stillness; by the concept of perfect quiet. I get songs stuck in my head pretty much constantly; my brain often won’t let me get to sleep, or wakes me up at all hours screaming that something is happening, or that I’ve forgotten something. I talk all the time; I feel a need to have auditory stimulus constantly. If I’m watching a movie and have to go into the other room, I’ll pause the movie and then start a podcast on my phone. I admit; it’s a problem.
So the room beckoned to me. I wanted to experience perfect silence. I needed it to happen at some point in my life. And I needed to know why it existed, and what Orfield Labs studies, and for what purpose. Steven Orfield, head of the facility, was nice enough to sit down with me and explain the function of their labs, and the story is even more fascinating than I’d hoped.
The facility, as it turns out, is not home to one world record but two: it’s also the site of the first-ever multi-track digital recording. Before the building became Orfield Laboratories, it was Sound 80 Studios is where Bob Dylan recorded Blood on the Tracks and — perhaps far more notably — where Lipps Inc. put “Funkytown” on wax.
Sound 80 was a client of Orfield, and when the labs took over the building, they added on 3500 square feet of acoustic research facilities, which includes the anechoic chamber and three reverberation chambers, in addition to the two recording studios that are still functional in the historic building, and used for jury tests of sounds and sound quality, and a great number of other things.
Orfield Laboratories primarily works in architecture, product development and in office research. They’re attempting to make living and working conditions better for everyone, with a specific focus on the elderly, people with disabilities, and people who are on the autistic spectrum. Not to put too fine a point on it, but their research is crucial in our busy world.
“We research lighting. We do daylighting. We do thermal comfort. We do indoor air quality. In product research, we work in sound quality and visual quality,” said Orfield, as we sat in his sunken, carpeted office, just off the cozy entryway and waiting room of the facility. “Architectural firms will contract us to create, what we call ‘perceptual comfort’ in our buildings.”
“Perceptual comfort means that the acoustics falls in ranges that people consider comfortable, clear, pleasant,” Orfield continued. “Lighting, exactly the same. Daylighting, exactly the same, thermal comfort, indoor air quality. Essentially what we’re doing is we’re using quantitative building performance standards that define perceptual comfort, and we’re converting those to architectural engineering standards, and then we’re creating computer models and calculating those out, and designing a space.”
That “perceptual comfort” is something that isn’t a one-size-fits-all concept, of course. “We have standards that relate to 90 year old users in senior housing. We have standards that relate to people with perceptual and cognitive disabilities in architecture. The demographic of the user has a lot to do with what we’re doing, in many cases.” And within each demographic, they “design for the outlier” — so they’ll look at which resident or worker has the most or least sensitivity to stimuli, and work backward from there.
Granted, this is all information that I’d never even considered before. It never occurred to me that, somewhere along the line, there was someone examining whether our living and workspaces are comfortable for all of our senses. But it’s incredibly exciting to discover.
“One of the most interesting things that we’ve been doing for the last 10 years — and it relates to silence — is we’ve been working on perceptual and cognitive disabilities in architecture,” Orfield told me.
Orfield Labs has spent a decade researching elderly living conditions and preferences for those with limited, sensitive, or otherwise augmented sensory considerations. They’ve worked closely with Autism Speaks and The Autism Society of America, and have done research into PTSD to see how to make day-to-day life better for people with hypersensitivity.
They’re also trying to find a way to make buildings adapt to what people like in a set of living conditions — even when the people living in those buildings aren’t even aware of the conditions they might prefer.
“We developed a patent back about 10 years ago,” said Orfield, “Called Architectural Dynamics, and that patent is about buildings that infer things as they watch people’s behavior, and they adjust to what people would like, as if people knew what they’d like.
“Essentially, it’s looking for pre-verbal cues that would indicate preference, where people, if you asked them, couldn’t tell you that consciously. We look in the future of buildings where, if you built that building in 2017, in 2018 you put in a new piece of software, and the new piece of software is built with more knowledge of how people respond and behave, and so the building gets better and better in doing what people would like it to do, if they knew.”
Buildings that learn how well you live under certain conditions and adjust accordingly. If you were to just say that, without the context Orfield provided, it might sound like the pitch for a bad Disney made-for-TV movie. But after talking to Orfield, it sounded wonderful, and thrilling.
After chatting with Orfield and getting a much-needed overview of the space and the work his laboratories do, I received a tour of the facility, which of course ended with a chance to go into the anechoic chamber.
Fiberglass wedges lined the walls, as I’d seen in photos, but when we walked into the chamber, I wasn’t prepared for the floor. Orfield explained as we entered that, unlike most versions of the same type of room, this was a full anechoic chamber, meaning that all six sides were outfitted with acoustic deadening wedges.
Most anechoic chambers have a concrete floor, which can be adjusted for in instrumentation, but this particular chamber doesn’t have a floor. At least, not a floor like you would expect. At normal floor level is a mesh of hand-strung and hand-tightened airplane cable. Below that web of cables is a sunken bottom, covered in more fiberglass wedges. This ensures that all six sides of the room are equally invested in the business of absorbing sound waves.
While you can walk on the cables themselves, Orfield has placed a sheet of plywood on them, for ease of walking, and also for a chair and instruments, when this is being used as a heme-anechoic (or partially anechoic) chamber.
Once inside, Orfield told me that it’s been falsely reported numerous times that a record has been set for “the longest time a person can stay in the room.” There is no such record; a person can potentially stay an indefinite period of time in the chamber. But what he has done over the years is insisted that national news outlets experience 45 minutes of perfect silence in the room, in darkness, before he allows them to do a story. Because it’s very important to understand silence before you can really discuss it.
Then he offered me 10 minutes alone in the room, and I eagerly accepted. He offered to turn off the light as well, and of course I said that would be ideal. Before he closed the door, he joked, “If you need to get out, you can scream, but I won’t be able to hear you.” He said that if I had a light on my phone, I could use that to find my way out, and explained how to open the doors. Then he shut me in, and turned out the light.
I had been hoping to get total silence; I wasn’t aware I would get total darkness as well. And that’s what I got. Complete blackness, visually and aurally. I wasn’t able to see my hand pass in front of my face (and from repeatedly reading The Cay as a child, I knew that was the test for darkness). Eventually, the only way I had of knowing my eyes were still open was willing myself to blink.
In the first minute in the room, I snapped my fingers, I said a few words. Of course I was able to hear those sounds, but they died immediately. Orfield had explained that your own voice sounds strange to you in the chamber, because it is the only place where you will hear your voice without a room effect.
I’d been worried that I would have a song stuck in my head while I was in the room, or that my mind would race. (This wasn’t helped by the fact that I’d spent 10 minutes in the waiting room thinking about “Funkytown” just a short while earlier.) But after the first minute or so, I was able to just sit and experience nothingness as deeply as I could, with my mind startlingly clear.
A few minutes in, I shifted slightly, and experienced a sudden revelation: Oh, my shoulder makes a sound when I move it, apparently. I had read that you can hear your own body going about its processes while in the room, and that a human can become disoriented. I experienced both sensations (although interestingly, I was mostly unable to hear myself breathe), and the latter was hardly upsetting … in fact, it was transcendent.
In the last couple of minutes in the chamber before the light came on and the door opened, I began to feel weightless and detached, as though my consciousness was separating from my body. My head began to feel elongated, like a balloon filling with air. I’ve never taken any hallucinogenic drugs, but I believe you would describe the sensations I felt as “mildly tripping balls.” I didn’t see any colors or visions; I didn’t see anything at all, of course. But I felt the perfect stillness and serenity of the room, I heard nothing, I saw nothing, and I began to feel as though I was stretching in all directions; that my being was filling the void.
Of course, it was all in my head, but I loved every instant of it. I was able to become perfectly still in a perfectly quiet room, and I cannot recommend the experience enough. If you’re in the Minneapolis area and have time to kill, please email Orfield Laboratories and schedule a visit. This was a true bucket list experience for me, and those ten minutes lived up to whatever I’d imagined they would be.
So I finally got to go to the quiet room I’ve been dreaming about for years now, and I got to learn that there is a very important laboratory trying to make living situations better for all people, simply through building better living environments, and it’s all under one roof. I’m very much looking forward to the house of the future being able to soothe my being, simply by upgrading the software.
In the days since, I’ve been able to hold in my memory a snapshot of the sound and the sensation of that room, and now I have a place of perfect nothingness to return to in my brain whenever I desire. And I’m never going to shut up about it.