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How natural soundscapes contribute to comfort and health in design

A close-up of a babbling brook

This article was originally published in DesignWell.

As biophilic design for the ears, employing natural soundscapes can bring building occupants closer to nature.

If you’re indoors right now, take a look around. The chances are, everything you can see was designed to be that way – from the door handles to the color on the walls. Now think about the soundscapes you typically encounter indoors.

If you’re lucky, you might be able to hear the birds singing from outside or if you’re at home maybe you’re listening to music. But for many people, the soundtrack to their lives comprises a stressful blend of urban noise like traffic and air conditioning, punctuated by other people’s conversations and endless notifications.

Much of the sound we hear in buildings is unwanted and unhealthy. In our homes, we can manage that sound to a certain level. But in shared buildings like hospitals, offices and schools, people have very little control over the sound they’re subjected to.

Our ears evolved as a survival tool. Not only do they give us 360 degrees of information about an environment, we also use them for communication. Because our sense of hearing is so important to survival, sound affects our brains and bodies in very powerful ways. It turns out, our primordial sense of hearing is extremely well-adapted to survival in nature, but ill-adapted to the acoustics of modern buildings. Sound familiar?

How does building audio impact people?

Let’s think back to that typical modern soundscape. The most distracting and complained-about sound indoors is other people’s speech. Because of its importance in social survival, humans have an exceptional ability to pick up on speech. We’re hardwired to pay attention it. When it’s unwanted, speech interferes with all manner of cognitive activities, like memory, reading, and quantitative reasoning, and causes irritation in the process.

Even tiny little sounds can have big effects on us. In the natural world, “alert sounds” are usually sharp, sudden sounds, designed to travel long distances and call attention to immediate danger. In modern life, sounds with similar characteristics let us know we’ve received a text message.

It’s not a life-or-death situation, but that doesn’t stop our bodies moving into fight or flight mode––which isn’t a healthy state to be in. Some indoor spaces are dangerously loud. This activates our body’s stress response system, and in long-term contributes to serious medical conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease.

Dots and waves hovering over a workspaces meant to symbolize the natural soundscapes of the office environment.

But it’s not just the noise level in a building that determines how healthy or productive it is. Think about it––if the birds suddenly stop singing it’s usually a cue for danger. Some buildings are eerily quiet or devoid of life, particularly with lower post-COVID occupancy rates. And in quiet spaces, distracting sounds like speech become even more disruptive.

And then there’s the palette of other urban sounds we might hear indoors, like air conditioning, traffic or construction. Even when they’re not dangerously loud, research shows that manmade sounds like these cause stress and anxiety. They’re not natural, nor are they indicative of calm or restoration.

The benefits of using natural sounds as building ambience

Now imagine an alternative soundscape. There’s running water and vegetation. The birds are singing happily, and the trees are swaying gently in the wind. It’s a far cry from the sound of our modern buildings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sounds that make us feel and function at our best are from natural settings––specifically, places that are safe, serene, and nourishing.

In contrast to urban sounds, the benefits of hearing these natural soundscapes are extraordinary. They benefit our physical and mental health. Natural sounds can calm our breathing and heartrate and reduce our muscle tension. They help us feel happier, safer, and more comfortable.

Dots and waves hovering over a workspaces meant to symbolize the natural soundscape of a hospital environment.

We can even go as far as designing natural soundscapes for specific settings or tasks. The sound of running water, for example, masks distracting speech and helps people focus even better than in silence. Imagine its benefits in a workplace or school. And in clinical settings, natural sounds can reduce anxiety, pain perception and depressive states. As an added bonus, when these biophilic sounds come together with biophilic visual design, the wellbeing benefits are heightened even more.

We now spend around 90% of our lives indoors. The way our buildings sound has never been more important. Many designers use biophilic design principles visually to design healthier spaces. Those same principles apply to sound too. And in recent years, technological developments have made biophilic soundscapes a viable option for architects, designers and building managers who want to create spaces that are vibrant, productive and restorative.

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