Breaking the ‘sound barrier to science’ at Winchester Science Centre

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Independent educational charity, Winchester Science Centre, is on a mission to make STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) accessible to everyone. Over the past three years, the team have created the UK’s most accessible planetarium, installed a vital Changing Places facility and created exciting opportunities to spark curiosity in STEM in the community. And now, a long-held desire to improve the noisy and sometimes overwhelming environment created by the unique pyramid-shaped building, has also been achieved. With the help of Ecophon, global developers and manufacturers of acoustic solutions, the Centre is breaking the ‘sound barrier to science’ by installing state-of-the-art acoustics.

The instantly recognisable pyramid and dome building that is home to Winchester Science Centre, won awards for its innovative and striking design when it opened in 2002. Constructed from concrete, steel and glass it offers panoramic views of the South Downs National Park and a visible internal structure showcasing its engineering. These are still impressive sights but the abundance of hard surfaces meant that sounds made by people, the café and exhibits bounced around the building and created a constant noise, annoying for many visitors but overwhelming for those with sensory sensitivities.

Working with Peter Rogers from Winchester-based acoustics consultancy Sustainable Acoustics, who has been involved in the project to improve the Centre’s acoustics for a number of years, the team were able to identify the venue’s ‘noise hot-spots’. However, changing priorities and limited budgets meant that the project might never have got off the ground if it hadn’t been for Hampshire based Ecophon, who saw the potential improved acoustics could make to every single visitor. Once onboard, the Ecophon team were so committed to improving the wellbeing of visitors to the Centre that they prioritised this project despite being in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis.

From a calming wave-like installation above the welcome area to fun pink patchwork squares over the café to an exclusively designed acoustic tree with leaves shaped like those of the English Oak, each set of acoustics will focus on solving sound problems, improving ambient noise and providing an aesthetically pleasing environment for visitors. There will also be an opportunity for visitors to learn about how acoustic solutions have improved the Centre and how they can be used in homes, schools and workplaces to improve people’s productivity and wellbeing.

Ben Ward, Chief Executive Officer of Winchester Science Centre, said: “No two visitors are the same. Everyone has different needs when they visit us, from the exhibits they enjoy and the interaction they require to the information they receive and the facilities they use. That is why, over the past few years, thanks to our funders, particularly Enterprise M3 LEP, Biffa Awards and Garfield Weston Foundation, we have made major strides in achieving our mission of making the Centre accessible to all. The new acoustics are the next exciting stage in this project and we can’t wait to hear what our visitors think.”

Jonathan Cherry, Managing Director of Ecophon, said: “Ecophon works extensively in schools, hospitals and offices around the world to improve people’s education potential and wellbeing. Winchester Science Centre’s ambition to become a truly accessible experience, and a showcase for acoustics through its new exhibition, presented a compelling case study. I’m delighted we’re able to provide the support they need and to be able to showcase some of our very latest products in the design, which is fun and playful and a perfect fit for the Centre.”

Ben Ward added: “We have been overwhelmed by the support from Ecophon UK. Not only have they delivered their expertise, product and part-funded the installation but they have also provided additional materials to use within the exhibition so that we can create a Recombobulation Room - a quiet space for visitors who need time away from the hustle and bustle of the Centre. We’re also grateful to Enterprise M3 LEP who have provided additional funding to make the most of this opportunity.”

Despite having to close in March as a result of Covid-19, the Winchester Science Centre team have not sat still. A new programme of digital activities, Science@Home, was launched to bring STEM into people’s homes and the team have been able to move forwards with the wider development plans ensuring that when the doors reopen later in the year it will be with an exciting and top quality new experience.