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Acoustics in the Worship Space VI:
Scott R. Riedel

From the April 1990 Edition of The Diapason.

Acoustic in the Worship Space, I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX have appeared in The Diapason, May 1983, May 1984, January 1986, May 1987, April 1988, April 1990, July 1991 May 1992, and April 2009 respectively.

Padded Pews

The matter of installing pew and chair pads in a church, and the influence of the pads upon the acoustical environment is an issue which frequently arises during church design and decorating. It is not possible to state the absolute acoustical effect of pads, because conditions vary in each situation. Some general observations and scientific principles can be noted, however.

The potential problem with the presence of padded seats is that they absorb sound energy, and remove it from the listening space. This is most often contrary to the acoustical requirements of the worship space, where the sounds of preaching, reading, singing and sacred music should be distributed and reverberated, not removed from the room. Therefore, just as carpeting, draperies, sound absorbing panels and acoustical ceiling tiles are often inappropriate materials for the worship environment, so can padded pews and chairs be undesirable.

Two contrary points of view generally present themselves, and neither is entirely true, nor absolutely false. Some may hold that 1) "Padded seats in a church always absorb too much sound energy, and should not be allowed;" or 2) "The people sit on the pads, covering them, thus eliminating their ability to absorb sound energy." The unoccupied padded seat will indeed absorb a significant amount of sound energy— specifically an average 60% of arriving sound energy is absorbed, per square foot. (Note than an un-upholstered seat absorbs less than 1/2 of that amount of energy.) Depending upon many other conditions, these rates of absorption may or may not be significant to the overall acoustical condition of the room. Typical dependent conditions are the cubic volume of the space, the number of seats, the relative amounts of other sound absorbing or reflecting materials and the number of occupants. Therefore, it is not quite possible to make a definitive statement that padded seats should always or never be allowed.

The occupied padded seat is indeed covered by the person, mitigating the acoustical absorption of the pad. All absorption, however, is not prevented, for rarely do people truly sit "side by side." Note also that when the people stand to sing a hymn or speak responses the pad is uncovered and fully absorbent. This is at the very moments of the service when sound quality within the congregation is critical!

Pads do simulate the absorbing qualities of the body; so that during rehearsal periods the unoccupied room with padded seats does respond similarly to the occupied room (with occupants seated). It must be clearly noted again that once the occupants stand the pads are free to absorb significant amounts of sound energy. Local practice (sitting or standing during hymns and occupancy rates) will determine some of the overall effect of the pads.

It may be helpful to list the positive and negative features of padded seats in the worship environment, along with specific suggestions:

1. The pads tend to equalize the acoustical environment from occupied to unoccupied conditions.

2. Padded pews represent a relatively small sound absorbing area as compared to typical areas of carpeting or acoustical ceiling tile.

3. Pads add an element of comfort and texture to the room.

4. Padded seats are often the sound absorbing materials that are nearest the congregation as they sing and speak, unadvisedly absorbing sound energy at the source.

5. When the congregation stands pads are exposed, and able to absorb sound energy.

6. When occupancy in the room is low, uncovered pads often absorb far more sound energy than is desirable.

7. Padded seats are more likely to be acoustically acceptable in a relatively large space that has little or no other absorbent materials (such as carpeting, acoustical tile, or drapes).

8. The pew backs, and rear side of pew backs should not be upholstered, for these surfaces become far too absorbent, even when worshippers are seated.

9. During times of less than full occupancy pads could be removed from rear seating spaces, both avoiding sound absorption, and encouraging occupants to sit more forward and together.

10. Leather, vinyl, and closed cell interior foam pads are preferred over heavier fabrics in order to reduce the rate of sound absorption.

As a general rule, and given the typical size and cubic volume of worship spaces in the U.S.A., along with typical rates of occupancy, decorating trends, and practice in many congregations, it is best to avoid the use of padded seats. This will not only assist organ and choral music production, but will especially help the corporate spoken and sung response of the congregation.

Scott R. Riedel is President of Scott R. Riedel & Associates, Ltd., an Acoustical and Organ Consulting firm based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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