“Tim Simmons: BSc (Hons) AMIOA Managing Director of Woolly Shepherd Ltd”

It always gives us a feeling of great pride when we are invited to contribute to forward thinking projects such as this major refurbishment of the Winchester Science Centre. The concept, an educational acoustic immersion experience, devised and developed by Ben Ward, Chief Executive of Winchester Science Centre and Peter Rogers of Sustainable Acoustics is most definitely one such project.

Given the major contribution of the likes of Saint-Gobain Ecophon, we were absolutely delighted to be asked to contribute our award-winning clouds to part of the scheme.

In addition to the visually spectacular clouds, floating around the solar Zephyr, we were really pleased to see our off cut material utilised so creatively in numerous areas of the exhibition space, providing absorption within many of the exhibition structures.

“Ben Ward: Chief Executive Officer of Winchester Science Centre” 

Ben Ward initially told us noise levels at the Winchester Science Centre were peaking at 86dB and had an image of his customer service staff wearing hearing protection. The Science Centre built in 2002 was a large, three storey high, polished concrete open space with glass covering most elevations. The acoustics in the space were so poor that on a busy day the noise was actually painful to the ears. Ben also referred to the Institute of Acoustics and their references to learning environments, wellbeing and mindfulness and the best spaces for teaching. They realised something had to be done and contacted Woolly Shepherd Ltd. Peter Rogers of Sustainable Acoustics in Winchester was given the complex task of rethinking and redesigning the whole centre, with acoustics in mind.

“Peter Rogers: FIOA, Sustainable Acoustics Ltd” 

The unmistakable pyramid and dome of Winchester Science Centre rises
above the horizon on the outskirts of Winchester, overlooking the beautiful South Downs National Park. It is a cathedral of science with a new legacy, which sees 180,000 visitors a year that includes more than 40,000 school children. 

From my earliest conversation in 2016 with the CEO, Ben Ward, the vision was to ‘fix’ the acoustics as part of a programme of refreshing the exhibits with a new theme that included sound, which previously had not been well represented. As the graph above shows from 18 days of monitoring, the average noise levels in the space regularly reached the high 70s, and for short durations over 80 dB(A), fairly described as a “cacophony”. This placed noise exposure of staff and visitors at concerning levels, and why people reported needing to raise their voice to communicate. (Thanks to David Trevor-Jones who assisted by taking this data.) 

As a charity, funding was always going to be a challenge but through intense fundraising the project evolved into a million-pound refurbishment to improve the experience for everyone, especially those living with hearing impairment. As part of the planned refurbishment, acoustics became a showcase, involving many from our industry and intense collaboration with focus groups to champion accessibility. 


Along the way we needed to bring on partners and were delighted that The Woolly Shepherd (winner of the 2019 IOA Sustainable Design Award) agreed to be involved and also the major sponsor, Saint-Gobain Ecophon, who brought with them a broad palate of products to specify from. With world renowned exhibition designers, HKD, the creative process began in earnest, with me holding the reins lightly to keep the essence of good acoustic design on course, and to establish ways to spark interest in: 

• musical acoustics; 

• the magic of hearing and dealing with it when it goes wrong; 

• architectural acoustics; 

• underwater sound;

• nature and sound;

• soundscaping; 

• engineering using acoustics. 

The design began to develop a way to showcase the science coherently through six zones, and we soon discovered the joy of using cartoonists to communicate the ideas to test out. 

To tackle the acoustic of the cavernous volume, we created a baseline model in CATT and validated against baseline reverberation, STI measurements. Key challenges were to reduce noise hot spots at source (containing them where possible) while also splitting up the space and improving the acoustic absorption and diffusion to a point where smaller pockets and local environments were created, each of which had their own acoustic feel. The model showed how acoustically exciting the whole volume was at the core of the noise problem. It was not feasible or necessary to reduce the reverberation of the whole space. 

Partial height walls were added to provide better separation between areas, which were filled with recycled offcuts of sheep’s wool from Woolly Shepherds’ manufacturing process. Some boxes were perforated to give broadband absorption through the space, and others were not perforated to assist with low frequency panel absorption. 

The scheme developed to include everything from the Airbus made UAV solar Zephyr that smashed the endurance record, which we hung amongst Woolly Shepherd clouds, and an acoustic tree (employing biophilia) to pause beneath to enjoy the view of the South Downs. My favourite has to be the hearing zone, which gives the visitor the ability to crawl through an ear and explore the function of the ossicles and cochlea. There is also a ‘recombobulation room’ where those needing to escape the buzz of activity and stimulation can find a sanctuary (an important request from the accessibility focus groups). 

The exhibits themselves also provided absorption where possible – the sonic rocket was stuffed with sheep’s wool and provides an excellent pod to play in and
change the architectural acoustics inside it. Our friends at 24 Acoustics contributed to one of the rocket boosters with a sound monitor, which brings the decibel scale to life and obviously encourages children to try and sonically break it.

Also, I have my own area called ‘Euphony’, which is a citizen science area where we will ask the public different questions about acoustics. The first is “what pleasant sounds did you notice during lockdown?” We’ll use this to inform our soundscape work as the data builds and share it to help others to do the same.”

Karen Jackson, Founder CSSEF, www.cssef.org.uk

“The attention to detail for deaf people is unmeasurable. To find somewhere that will bring so much visual representation to science and has thought of the needs of my family, you have made my shoulders relax. I can take a deep breath without having to worry about asking for things to be adjusted.”

Ben Ward added: 

“Karen highlighted a few of the things she really liked about Winchester Science Centre’s redevelopment such as the round tables in the café – perfect for enabling deaf people to communicate and the chill out area downstairs for when things get overwhelming. People often overlook that sound can be challenging and some deaf people just need 5-10 minutes quiet to chill out and then go back into sound.” 

“This project has been transformative for our charity. Our whole visitor experience has been so remarkably improved and is now so much more accessible and inclusive. Something I am immensely proud of. Along this journey I have had absolute pleasure in learning so much about the impact acoustics has on all our lives and I am excited about sharing this story with children and their families for years to come.”