Interdisciplinary Engineering: Imagine the possibilities

David Schwind (BS ’74, interdisciplinary engineering) is a partner at Charles M. Salter Associates, Inc. in San Francisco. He is a fellow of the Audio Engineering Society and has done acoustical design for numerous theater projects including the Colburn School of Performing Arts, the Genentech Research Support Facility, Letterman Digital Arts Center, Warner Bros. Post- Production Complex, the California Theater for the San Jose Opera, and the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Purdue named him an Outstanding Interdisciplinary Engineer in 2002.

When I graduated from college 35 years ago, an engineering education that included an arts component like acoustics or theater was the exception. I am told that this combination now makes up the largest group of students in the Interdisciplinary Engineering Program.

I was drawn to the blend of art and engineering by an interest in college radio and music and was, in fact, the first to graduate from Purdue as an acoustical engineer in interdisciplinary engineering. My major included the study of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, physics and design. I apply it in my daily work as an acoustical engineer working on room acoustics, ventilation system noise reduction, and sound isolation between spaces for facilities including theaters, performing arts mixed-use projects, civic buildings and broadcast music and film studios. It is a fascinating field.

The design of concert music venues, for example, has benefited greatly from research in human perception, helping us define what really matters acoustically. This has resulted in a reduction in the size of dedicated concert halls to a maximum of 2,500 seats, to enhance important parameters like early reflected sound and acoustical intimacy. In larger venues, the sound-reflecting surfaces are simply too far away to deliver these important categories of reflection in time for the human mind to find it most pleasurable.

My projects keep me in close touch with the arts and raise the question: Is room acoustics design itself an art or a science? I explored the interface of art and science in a chapter for the book, “Acoustics: Architecture — Engineering — The Environment”:

“Room acoustics is a combination of both art and science. Scientific theory plays an important role in defining acoustical measurements and analysis techniques. Still, the best acoustical theory must be combined with creativity, intuition, and experience to be implemented effectively.”

My acoustical design colleagues have degrees in music, mathematics, physics, ocean engineering, mechanical, electrical, civil engineering and, yes, acoustical engineering. We work in a variety of locations, but at least half the people who hire us are architects. And who better to identify with the art in architecture and appreciate the vision, than someone educated in interdisciplinary engineering and allied arts?

Now, more than ever, building projects need to be an integrated whole. Elements like lighting, thermal comfort, technical infrastructure, acoustics and visual interest need to interplay in a successful project. This is where interdisciplinary engineers — especially those who meld art and engineering — can make a real contribution.