The importance of acoustics in the built environment

From the screeching 85 decibel noise of the tube to the neighbour’s hoovering at 1 am, noise in the built environment can be an irritation, but similarly to air quality and lighting level, persistent noise can have a long-term impact upon mental and physical health. Each year, The World Health Organization estimates that on average, more than one million Healthy Life Years are lost within the EU states and Western European countries due to exposure to traffic noise. Noise sources differ in their effect; sounds from aeroplanes are intermittent, whereas noise from street traffic is usually continuous, and both result in various levels of annoyance which affects people in different ways.

Noise irritation leads to negative emotions impacting physical and mental health. High levels of noise pollution (inside and outside) are linked to early death, obesity, greater risk of stroke, and are also correlated with cardiovascular disorders. Noise also disrupts normal activities such as sleeping or having a conversation which can result in anxiety, depression and chronic sleep disorders which alter appetite-regulating hormones.

According to Lazarus’ transtheoretical stress model, an individual’s stress increases when they perceive that their environment threatens their well-being and resources to combat it. If the noise-induced annoyance persists, it can cause fatigue associated with the attempt to cope with the irritation. However, the emergence of noise irritation depends on factors beyond the level of noise, including fear of the sound occurring and the inability to protect oneself from the noise exposure, which suggest that the link between noise and mental health is influenced by a number of variables, including stress associated with the sound, the fear of the noise and an individual’s perception and history coping with noise.

In learning environments, studies show that children who are exposed to regular loud noises have poorer memories and reading skills which impacts their school performance. In the workplace, acoustics also have a significant effect on work productivity and employee satisfaction. Unwanted noise can be a distraction in the workplace; studies have found that controlling sound leads to an increase in productivity and performance, whilst also decreasing employees’ stress levels and increasing concentration. As more workplaces are adopting coworking spaces, working environments are becoming noisier, as often they are designed as open spaces, dedicated to collaborative work for group discussion and interaction. In the workplace, noise is reported to be one of the most irritating aspects of working life, and noisy environments tend to get louder over time, as people compete to speak louder, also known as the 'Lombard effect'.

With the knowledge of how acoustics affect health and well-being, employees should provide working spaces with non-instructive privacy, to minimise conversational distractions and increase privacy. Noise can be reduced in various ways: the use of sound absorbing materials, increasing wall mass and thickness, incorporating rooms with sound absorbing plants (and the use of green infrastructure), increasing airspace width within walls, aligning working spaces with ‘acoustic furniture’, lining walls and ceilings with acoustic lining and quadruple-glazing for noise reduction.

Word by Anna Marks

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