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Ssssh… Keep It Down: the Importance of Minimizing Noise with Interior Design

To make a compelling case for good-quality acoustical design, one needn’t look far. Ample research, conducted in different facility types, all points to the same result: poor acoustics has a negative effect on occupant productivity and well-being.

In fact, the World Green Building Council’s recently published white paper, “Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices: The Next Chapter for Green Building,” states: “There is no question that excessive discernible noise from speech, telephones and so on, particularly likely in an open plan office, is potentially responsible for greater dissatisfaction and productivity loss than any other single environmental factor.”

One of the more often-referenced and compelling examples of research pointing toward this end is “Disruption of office-related tasks by speech and office noise” — published in the British Journal of Psychology — which found worker productivity dropped an astounding 66% in cases where employees could overhear conversations. A follow-up Ergonomics journal study, conducted by the same British psychologists, also found that 99% of those surveyed identified office noise — such as ringing phones and background speech — as impairing their concentration.

Another interesting project followed the progress of 2,000 fourth graders, many of them in schools located near airports. As reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology, a 20-decibel increase in aircraft noise delayed students’ reading levels by up to eight months.

Meanwhile, in hospitals, a group of University of Chicago medical researchers found noise levels to be as high as 67 decibels in the ICU and 42 dB in surgical wards, well exceeding World Health Organization–recommended patient area levels of 30 dB. In addition, “Noise and Sleep Among Adult Medical Inpatients” — published in the Archives of Internal Medicine — found sleep disruptions from noise reported by 42% of hospital patients.

Solving the Problem
In terms of actively addressing the issue, other studies show how acoustical improvements can positively affect focus, well-being and productivity.

For example, Julian Treasure, chairman of the U.K.-based acoustic consultancy The Sound Agency, shared the results of a Sound Agency case study in a TED Talk, which documented a 46% improvement in employees’ ability to concentrate, and a 10% increase in their short-term memory accuracy, when sound-masking technology was used in their office space.

Of course, this approach is just one of many acoustical strategies, as Isilay Civan, MSC, PHDS, LEED AP O+M, senior associate, research and strategic innovation specialist, HOK, Chicago, explains in an HOK Thought Leadership blog.

“Sound masking is not the only way to reduce unwanted noise. Office layout, flooring materials, walls, ceilings and behavioral protocols all can make a difference,” he states.

When assisting designers with furniture, wall, ceiling, flooring and material selection, having a good handle on prominent research linking good acoustics to occupant performance and well-being will assure these potential clients of your expertise and sensitivity to this prominent facility design issue.