In densely populated cities where space is a precious commodity, people are beginning to appreciate the importance of concepts like soundproofing and acoustic buffering, especially for those who continue to work from home during the pandemic. Imagine a family sharing the same room, attending virtual classes or engaging in a video conference – the resulting cacophony can drive even the most patient of people up the wall.
According to the UK Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), excessive noise is a global occupational health hazard with considerable social and physiological impacts. Worldwide, this affects approximately 250 million workers, with about 20 per cent of adult-onset hearing loss attributed to occupational noise. The British Health and Safety Executive (HSE) also suggests that noise should be regulated and controlled, which in the long run, is beneficial towards improving the quality of public health, work efficiency, academic learning and even rehabilitation.
IS NOISE POLLUTION DRIVING US CRAZY?
Apart from more conventional methods like installing soundproofing panels made from mushrooms or adding carpeting to a room, architects and designers are developing a growing awareness for the acoustic requirements of a building.
Sound and communication expert Julian Treasure knows more about this than anyone else. As the founder of audio branding company The Sound Agency, Treasure has spent his career helping people and organisations create healthier, more effective soundscapes. In his TED talk, he says, “It’s time to start designing for our ears. We’re designing environments that make us crazy – and it’s not just our quality of life which suffers; it’s our health, our social behaviour, and our productivity as well. Sound affects us physiologically, psychologically, cognitively, and behaviourally – even when we’re not conscious of it.”
Explaining the significance of acoustics, Treasure gives an example of the pandemonium that is a hospital, where noise levels have doubled in the past few decades, affecting not just the patients, but also the people working there. How can one expect the staff to perform with accuracy, or hope that the patients recover quickly, when the noise quality is just so poor?
BBC published an article in 2018, where researchers from King’s College London found that noise levels in intensive care units regularly exceed 100 decibels (dB), louder than a lawn mower or vacuum cleaner! At this level, the noise pollution can lead to intensive care psychosis, a form of delirium where patients experience anxiety and become paranoid.
Speaking to BBC, Dr Andreas Xyrichis speaks about the improvements that have since taken place, like sound-absorbing panels, noise-warning systems and white noise sound-masking. However, more research must be conducted to create a conducive sound environment that is not just helpful for the patients’ recovery, but also for the frontliners’ performance.
THE IMPORTANCE OF REVERBERATION
Architectural acoustics is a cross-domain subject. Design and drafting agency BluEntCAD explains that acoustics is the totality of all processes involved in the production, transmission, control and reception of sound. It plays a significant role in how comfortable an interior space can be, which includes using wall panels and floor treatments to reduce reverberation time and noise, so that speech can be heard and understood clearly without having to shout.
When it comes to reverberation, one does not go without mentioning Sabine’s formula. Reverberation (or reverb for short) refers to the residual sound in a space after the sound’s source is stopped. Simply put, sound waves get reflected when they encounter obstacles (like walls, ceilings, floors, and furniture), and these surfaces will absorb part of the energy until it disappears completely. The smoother the surface, the lower its absorption ability – which results in a long reverb. According to Wallace Clement Sabine, also nicknamed the father of architectural acoustics, reverb time is proportional to the volume of the room, and inversely proportional to its total sound absorption.
With Sabine’s formula, the design of places like concert halls, theaters, auditoriums, museums and libraries becomes more effective, as the most ideal reverberation time can be achieved to create the best listening experience. Acoustic engineers can control the reverberation time by adding or reducing sound-absorbing materials such as sofas, carpets, and even special coatings to manipulate the sound quality. Higher reverberation time adds depth, richness and warmth to music, while rooms designed for speech usually have a low reverberation time. As a general guideline, 2 to 2.5 seconds is the optimal reverberation time for a concert hall, while lecture halls fare best with a reverberation time of one second – any higher, and students would be struggling to decipher the lecturer’s words. For classrooms, kindergartens and offices, a reverberation time of 0.5 seconds is ideal, where sound can still travel effectively without creating unpleasant echoes.
PRIVACY WHILE WORKING IN PUBLIC
As offices continue to downsize and companies encourage the practice of working remotely, co-working spaces are becoming more popular, especially for those who find it impossible to work from home. In 2019, there were nearly 19,000 co-working spaces worldwide, and the number is estimated to reach 26,000 by 2025. But what happens if your favourite quiet sanctuary begins to fill up with people?
In a Consumer Research Journal article titled “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition”, the authors state that a high level of noise may cause a great deal of distraction, causing individuals to process information to a lesser extent, therefore exhibiting lower creativity. This is exactly why you find it hard to concentrate on a book in a cafe – a reporter from The Atlantic found that even relatively quiet cafes in New York register 73 dB of noise; a little too close for comfort to the 85 dB deemed harmful to human health.
With the open layout of co-working spaces, the risk of noise pollution becomes even more apparent. The lack of acoustic privacy means it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the sounds of your neighbour’s fingernails clacking away on the keyboard, or by the laughter coming from a larger group of colleagues across the room. This is where acoustic design comes into play, reducing reverb to a minimum so that you don’t have to resort to wearing your noise-cancelling headphones all day.
Space Matrix, a workplace design specialist, introduces the addition of acoustic furniture that diffuses sound to offer a muted work environment. Layered with felt, foam or sound-absorbing fibre, these solutions help to negate the reverberations of conventional office spaces, which often occur no thanks to the abundance of hard surfaces, high ceilings and shiny floors. Ergonomic seating pods shelter users from ambient noise, so that individuals can work privately despite being seated in an open space. Modular fittings like wall panels, foam wings or artistic-looking flaps act as both sound shields and fashionable partitions.
Based on a similar concept of white noise, sound masking for corporate spaces are also becoming more popular. By implementing a subtle broadcast of ambient noise at the same frequency as the human voice, it reduces travel from the sound of conversation, without cancelling sound or eliminating speech. With sound masking technology, other people’s speech becomes less intelligible, and therefore less distracting.
So next time you’re heading to the office, grabbing a coffee outside, or even settling down on your sofa to watch a movie, keep in mind the huge effects your sonic surroundings can have on your wellbeing – your ears will thank you for it.
For more articles on the power of sound in architecture, read:
Cover Credit: Debora Pilati / Unsplash
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, animal videos and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.