The Sound Around You

HIPHN_El Paso Corp_Cafe_1_2000Improving acoustical performance in interior spaces is part of our everyday discussion, and raising awareness of the impact of noise on people has become a leading passion of mine. In the architectural and building industries, research provides clear evidence that exposure to noise impacts healing and productivity. This research influences how we design buildings for the people who spend the majority of their time in these places — the students in a classroom, patients in a hospital, or employees in an office. However at a personal, individual level, there is great value in better understanding acoustics in our daily lives.

Most interior environments should be safeguarded against decibel levels that would harm your ability to hear, however, how does excessive noise affect your ability to concentrate and overall stress level?

Measuring the decibel level of activities throughout the day is quite easy to do by simply installing a mobile app on your smartphone, such as Decibel 10th. I encourage you to use one of these tools to monitor fluctuations in the noise around you throughout the day and take note of how you respond. Do your muscles tense while struggling to have a conversation in a loud restaurant (or does your dinner-mate wonder why you are screaming at them over a simple decision as to what wine to select)? Are you more focused at work wearing sound-canceling headphones or “squatting” in an unoccupied conference room?

As you experience different noise levels, take note of how the sounds around you measure up to these average decibel levels:

Decibel Level (dB) Activity
0 Threshold of what a healthy ear can hear
10 Soft wind
20 A peaceful apartment in the city
25-35 Leaves rustling in the wind
40 Typing on a keyboard
50 Talking in a low voice
60 Conversation
65 Sitting in a small car with motor idling; normal office noise
75-90 Traffic noise

Taking an inventory of excessive noise in our daily lives is the first step toward a more productive and healthy society. For example, a study by the Danish Cancer Society that monitored the effect of traffic noise reports that for every 10-decibel increase, the risk of heart attack went up 12 percent with increases in risk starting at only 40dB. This is one statistic of many that are shedding light on the impact of noise in our lives. How does excessive noise or poor acoustics impact your daily life? We encourage you to share your story at www.nonoisenow.com.

A Sound Affect on Human Centered Design

I was once told good (and bad) acoustics is something you experience; something you can feel, even if you don’t know what it is. I am always impressed at how real this experience can be.

Research shows that people work more productively, communicate and learn more effectively, and heal more efficiently in environments with good acoustics.

Recently, Jill Robles, the Ecophon Architectural Sales Manager in New England, and I had the pleasure of working with the Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD) in Boston, Massachusetts.  The IHCD is an international non-governmental educational organization committed to advancing the role of design in expanding opportunity and enhancing experience for people of all ages and abilities through excellence in design.

A large lobby area outside of a conference room is utilized frequently for meetings.  It is a great space for informal gatherings after presentations but the acoustical condition made it uncomfortable and difficult to hear. Conversations can be a challenge without proper sound dampening because of heavy reverberation and increased sound pressure levels.

Prior to our “acoustical intervention”, members of the IHCD team were skeptical that the acoustical challenge could not be overcome, and that any acoustical solution might resemble that of an “ugly burlap sack”

Our solution? Shaped, free-hanging, acoustical sound-absorbers hung from the existing gypsum ceiling at varying levels to enhance the contemporary and spirited design in an area that has many acoustically reverberant surfaces. We took simple before and after decibel (db) readings, and the sound pressure levels decreased by 13 db when people were talking softly. It may not sound like a lot, but a 2-3 db reduction is like having two car engines running side by side and turning one of them off!

Though acoustics was the primary reason for the treatment, these noise absorbing systems were far from the feared “burlap sack”. Members of the IHCD staff commented on how they served as artwork. The shapes and levels complimented the suspended lighting, and even allowed some flexibility in how light was dispersed.

But the true test was during a presentation weeks later, co-hosted by the International Interior Design Association (IIDA), Ecophon, and CertainTeed. Attended by more than 60 guests from the Architectural, Design, Acoustical Engineering, and Interior Design Communities, the presentation by European speakers discussed how acoustics impact people based on research from around the world.

After the presentation, the guests mingled, chatted and relaxed. The most interesting part is that everyone congregated in the area that received the acoustical treatment, while the other areas in the facility were empty. To me, this demonstrates a good acoustical experience… nobody knows why they feel more comfortable in a space, but they naturally communicate better in it.