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The health impact of building noise

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A busy noisy train station

In order to understand how soundscaping can improve wellbeing for building users, it’s first important to consider the context: noise. We now spend over 90% of our time indoors. Unfortunately, most of these spaces have not been designed to accommodate our innate responses to sound.

Open-concept design

In recent years, our buildings have come to serve many purposes and are often designed around large, open spaces. For instance, some 70% of Americans work out of open plan offices.1

This trend usually comes hand in hand with a “densification” of people. A global survey showed that space per worker has dropped by a third over a three year period – from 225 square feet to 150.2 The same goes for hotels, where lobbies have become open-concept spaces that encourage mixed guest activities like dining, relaxing, socialising and working, and shrinking room sizes are compensated for with open-plan bathrooms to create the illusion of more space.

At the same time, there’s been a huge shift in our lifestyles: we now spend 87% of our lives indoors (and another 6% in the car), so the way that our buildings are designed has a big impact on our lives.3

A brief history of noise

Documented problems with noise go as far back as Ancient Rome, where chariots were banned from nighttime streets.4 Nowadays, the world faces noise challenges on another scale from transport, industry, construction, and domestic sources. The extent of this problem as a whole is beyond the scope of this review but, to put it into context, the World Health Organisation has listed noise second only to air pollution in its damaging impact on human health.5

Noise in buildings

The modern worker is plagued by noise. Noise impairs concentration for up to 99% of office workers. 6 Privacy and distraction-free working are consistently cited as top priorities for employees. 7, 8 Workers are distracted by ringing telephones, machinery, doors, and outside pollution, but the number one culprit is other people’s conversations.9, 10, 11

It’s a similar story in the hospitality industry. And in healthcare, staff and patients also endure alarms, televisions, and rattling trolleys in addition to typical noise pollution. 12 Our hospitals are increasingly overcrowded and dangerously loud: perceived noise levels in hospitals have more than doubled in the last 50 years. 13

Modern design trends for materials such as wood, glass and concrete, often create problematic acoustics which exacerbate the noise problem.

Too loud or too quiet?

At this point it’s important to note that our reactions to noise are complex. It’s not just the Sound Pressure Level (or volume) of a noise that determines its distracting power but its intelligibility. Spaces can be too quiet as well as too loud. They accentuate distracting sounds and cause problems for speech privacy. And even quiet sounds, like a dripping tap, can be distracting.12

Hotels, for instance, have done much over the years to reduce noise levels from air conditioning, plumbing, and refrigerators. And so, with minimal background noise, even low-volume noises from outside the room are disruptive to sleep.

Our reactions to noise can also be influenced by individual factors, like age, perceived control, and personality type. Research estimates that the sound level of a noise typically only accounts for 25% of the variance of our annoyance with it. The remaining 75% relies largely on the subjective meaning that we attach to each sound. 14 Solutions to the noise problem need to be intelligent and flexible.



1. International Facility Management Association (IFMA). (2010). Space and Project Management Benchmarks Research Report 34

2. CoreNet Global. (2013). Property Paradox: Space for Office Workers Continues to Decline, Even as Companies Expect Hiring to Increase in Months Ahead

3. Kelepsis, N., Nelson, W., Ott, W., Robinson, J., Tsang, A., Switzer, P., … Engelmann, W. (2001). The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): a resource for assessing exposure to environmental pollutants. Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology Volume, 11, 231–252.

4. Salmon, V., James, S., & Peterson, C. (1975). Industrial noise control manual. Ohio: US Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

5. Fritschi, L., Brown, A. L., Kim, R., Schwela, D., & Kephalopoulos, S. (2011). Burden of disease from environmental noise: Quantification of healthy life years lost in Europe. World Health Organization.

6. Banbury, S. P., & Berry, D. C. (2005). Office noise and employee concentration: Identifying causes of disruption and potential improvements. Ergonomics, 41(1), 25–37.

7. Oxford Economics. (2016). When the walls come down: How smart companies are rewriting the rules of the open workplace.

8. Haapakangas, A., Helenius, R., Keskinen, E., & Hongisto, V. (2008). Perceived acoustic environment, work performance and well-being - survey results from Finnish offices. 9th International Congress on Noise as a Public Health Problem (ICBEN).

9. Herman Miller. (2015). It’s a Matter of Balance: New Understandings in Open-Plan Acoustics.

10. Udemy Research. (2018). 2018 workplace distraction report.

11. Salter, C., Powell, K., Begault, D., & Alvarado, R. (2003). Case studies of a method for predicting speech privacy in the contemporary workplace. UC Berkeley: Center for the Built Environment.

12. Rafferty, A., Xyrichis, A., Wynne, J., & Mackrill, J. (2017). Hospital project on noise, sound and sleep. King’s College London

13. Busch-Vishniac, IJ., West, JE., Barnhill, C., Hunter, T., Orellana, D., Chivukula, R. (2005) Noise levels in Johns Hopkins Hospital. J Acoust Soc Am. 17, 3629–3645.

14. Oseland, N., & Hodsman, P. (2015). Planning for Psychoacoustics: A psychological approach to resolving office noise distraction. Workplace Unlimited.

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