Growing up in Chennai, India, Vidhya Rajendran always knew she wanted to work in a creative field. As fate would have it, even her Myers-Briggs personality type is an “architect” (INTJ).
Not long after earning her Bachelor of Architecture from the National Institute of Technology at Tiruchirappalli, Vidhya moved to Seattle to pursue her Master’s in computational design at the University of Washington. It was during a course on high-performance buildings that a professor noticed her enthusiasm and talent for research. The professor nominated Vidhya for the Applied Research Consortium (ARC) Program, and she was paired with local architecture firm NBBJ to explore the topic of acoustics.
From there, Vidhya interned with ZGF, got hired full-time, and now works cross-functionally between the Project Performance Team and Data & Research Team. We caught up with Vidhya to learn more about her acoustics research and how computational design can make our buildings better.
It started as an assignment for my high-performance buildings course, but after some initial research, my interest grew. I found a fascinating occupancy evaluation concluding that acoustics is the only category in which LEED-rated office buildings performed worse than conventional cubical-style offices when compared across all the different indoor environmental qualities in an office. My research stemmed from this conclusion. I wanted to contribute to making LEED-rated office buildings better.
The resonating cavities in the sound panel prototype. Photo courtesy of Vidhya Rajendran.
What are the key takeaways from your research?
The key takeaway is that the porous absorbers we often use for sound insulation are not effective in absorbing human speech sounds. As long as we design open-plan offices to be rectangular in form, we cannot solve the problem of noise and speech privacy in the space. The end-product of my research is a design of a sound panel composed of resonating cavities that can be tuned to absorb the sound frequencies in the human speech spectrum.
The finished look of the sound panels. Photo courtesy of Vidhya Rajendran.
Unlike daylighting and ventilation, acoustics is not always given significant attention. Right now, tackling acoustics requires additional insulating materials to be installed, which increases the embodied carbon in the building. One of the future directions of my research is to embed the resonating cavities in the structural concrete slabs so we’re not adding material just for the sake of acoustics. This would also reduce the amount of carbon-intensive concrete used in the slabs.
What’s it like having your research featured in Fast Company?
It feels great! I’m glad the research is reaching more people. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback, and people have been reaching out to me with their own ideas and even asking for my feedback on their work. It truly is a great feeling to be recognized in the scientific, acoustic, and architecture community for the hard work that went into the research.
Installed sound panels. Photo courtesy of Vidhya Rajendran.
When did you realize you wanted to work in architecture?
My creative side pushed me toward this field. Art always helped me express myself in ways that words could not. But I also have a very logical mind and computer science comes naturally. My current role at ZGF is an amalgam of creative thinking and analytical thinking, which is why I really enjoy the work I do.
How can we leverage data and computational design to make our buildings better (smarter, healthier, more sustainable, etc.)?
The greatest opportunity is to complete the feedback loop for our building designs. Computational simulations provide us with an initial set of data to predict how well our building design performs. Upon completion, real-time surveys and post-occupancy evaluations help us understand if our initial data from computational predictions were accurate. This, in turn, can be used to better calibrate our computational methods, thus empowering us to predict more-accurately how sustainable, efficient, and occupant friendly our designs can be when they’re still in the early design phase. With each project, we get smarter.
Another advantage is to quickly and numerically analyze various design schemes based on a set of criteria or constraints. For example, the placement of nurse stations plays a critical role in hospital design and optimizing the steps taken by nurses can help reduce their overall fatigue and boost productivity. This could be computationally analyzed within a couple of minutes.
Do you have any hobbies outside of the office?
I enjoy hiking, running, swimming, snowboarding—basically anything outdoors. I like to stay fit. I also enjoy reading and sketching portraits.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
It’s hard to pick one! I’ve received a lot of advice from my parents and close confidants over the years, which has helped in various stages of my life. The most recent advice I got from a close confidant, which is funny yet quite insightful, was, “A life without hope is like a bathroom without soap.”