Bad Acoustics Are A Killer. Designers Can Do Something About It.
Noise is all around us, whether we like it or not. Some is easily ignored—think the quiet whoosh of an HVAC system, or clinking cups in a cafe. These noises are consistent, unobtrusive, and natural to their environments. Other noises? Not so much. Consider a blaring siren on the street or a colleague’s over-enthusiastic guffaw. In both instances, the source of the noise demands our attention, albeit for wildly different reasons, and we are obliged to give it. Why? Biology.
When our ancestors were evolving from apes to modern humans, the world was a quieter place. According to University of Southern California professor Bart Kosko, Ph.D., loud noises inevitably preceded high stress situations—rival humans, animal attack, or natural disasters were the main sources of danger. Our bodies evolved, Kosko suggests in his book, Noise, to pump out adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones that would prepare us to either fight or flee these threats upon hearing loud sounds. “Today,” he tells Harper’s Bazaar, “we regularly get similar stress-hormone surges from car alarms, ringing phones, police sirens, leaf blowers, jackhammers, and amplified voices.”
We all know that stress feels bad, but prolonged exposure to it can have long-term detrimental effects, including death. For instance, according to the World Health Organization, environmental noise was directly linked to cardiovascular disease, a decrease in sleep quality, and cognitive impairment. Another study from the Occupational and Environmental Medicine journal suggested that long-term exposure to nighttime aircraft noises increased risk of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. And there’s evidence to suggest that all this stress wouldn’t go away even if someone learned to simply “tune it out” either. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, workers in a noisy office felt unmotivated to complete cognitive tasks and had elevated stress hormones, although they reported feeling calm. So, what’s the solution? How do we make our spaces less burdensome on our bodies and minds?
The solution, argues sound expert Julian Treasure of the Sound Agency, is better acoustics in architecture and interior design. “Most architects or designers aren’t paying attention to the damaging potential of environmental noise,” says Treasure. “There’s a wealth of academic evidence that connects noise with stress, long-term health issues, low morale, degraded social behavior, and low productivity. There’s also a disconnect between academia and the bosses who seem to believe open-plan is the one size that fits all.”
Indeed, one need only look to the plethora of acoustical wall panels, ceiling fixtures, and sound-absorbing luminaires that have flooded the market in recent years to see that the latest workplace trends – specifically open plan offices, open ceilings, and concrete flooring – cause more problems than they fix. Treasure argues that it’s in the early phases of designing an office that architects can truly improve the space’s aural qualities.
“It’s all common sense but it does need to be planned from the beginning: what kind of space is the architect making?” asks Treasure. “There are certain properties of sound—the RAT (reflect, absorb, transmit) of acoustics and the ABCs (absorb, block, cover) of noise control—that should help architects pick the right surfaces and coverings to achieve a pitch-perfect space.”
One product category often overlooked for sound control in interiors is flooring. “The wrong flooring can be catastrophic for working spaces,” explains Treasure. Particularly, Treasure identifies concrete, hardwood, tile, and traditional LVT as flooring materials that are terrible for acoustics but continue to be specified because of their trendy aesthetics. For example, a reception area outfitted with one of these flooring types, surrounded by hard walls and topped by an open ceiling, makes office noise that much worse because the hard surfaces bounce the click-clack of shoes around and create an echo chamber for loud voices. “By contrast, a well-designed, soft floor covering can reduce noise dramatically, creating a more peaceful working environment and reducing stress levels.”
Interface, a pioneer in the sustainable flooring market, has long recognized the importance of controlling noise in environments. When they launched their own LVT, they wanted it to offer noise reduction capabilities similar to the acoustical benefits of their carpet tiles. Interface’s modular carpet absorbs 30% of airborne noise, a major advantage to bringing office noise down to the ideal 45-55 decibel (dB) range. Additionally, Interface’s LVT with Sound Choice™ backing reduced impact sound by 16dB in laboratory tests, compared to a hard surface floor that only offered a reduction of 1 to 6dB. That test qualified the product for a QuietMark™ certification, making Interface the first flooring manufacturer to achieve that distinction. A designer can select a plethora of products from Interface to match many different styles and needs, guaranteeing their client an acoustically and aesthetically pleasing space.
“Today it’s possible to design acoustically superior spaces with floors that look fabulous,” says Treasure. “There’s no trade-off for the designers and no excuse for making spaces that hurt people’s happiness, effectiveness or wellbeing.”
Learn more about how Interface’s acoustical solutions can work for your space.