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The True Cost of Noise

Julian Treasure

Dead silence can be an intimidating working environment.

Some sound in any workplace is generally desirable: pleasing background sounds like the gentle, indecipherable babble of colleagues speaking, one’s own choice of music or perhaps the sounds of nature coming through an open window. However, much of the sound in typical workplaces is undesirable: ringing phones, electromechanical noise, other people’s music and so on. We call this undesirable sound “noise”.

It’s important to have a thorough understanding of how this unwanted noise affects people in working environments and how best to improve those spaces with optimal acoustic adjustments.

Understanding how sound works

Sound wave

Sound is simply audible vibration conducted through a medium. In built spaces, there are two forms of conduction.

Airborne sound comprises sound generated within a room and transmitted through the air. Typically, this includes people talking, typing, walking and moving objects; phones ringing; noise from heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment; printers; and sound/music systems.

Structure-borne sound comprises sound generated by any physical impact on the building and transmitted through the structure itself, which typically includes footfalls in the office above, vibrations from heavy equipment such as an HVAC plant, and impact sound like drilling or hammering in adjacent rooms.

We measure the quantity of sound in decibels (dB), a logarithmic scale where an increase of 10 dB is perceived as a doubling of the sound level, or a reduction of 10 dB as a halving. 30 dB is very quiet – for example, a bedroom at night. A typical office is around 50-60 dB.

Open office layout

A poorly designed open office is a recipe for bad acoustics.

The problem with noise

People spend a lot of their time in office spaces, where noise negatively affects worker productivity, health and satisfaction. To put it simply, this means that noise is bad for business.

Noise disturbs concentration.

According to Gensler’s 2013 Workplace Survey, people spend over half their working time in offices doing tasks that require focus. Most workers struggle to concentrate in open plan environments that were designed purely for collaboration. While people can habituate to constant, unvarying noise, interruptive noise severely detracts from worker productivity. According to Professor Gloria Mark of UC Irvine, it takes people 23 minutes to regain their focus after every significant interruption!

Noise damages health.

There are well-established links between long-term exposure to noise and coronary illness and stroke, as well as stress, high blood pressure and other conditions. The noise in question does not have to be overwhelmingly loud: research shows that the danger level is just 65 dB, which is often achieved in lively offices and especially in social spaces like cafés and canteens.

Noise damages communication.

Most people are familiar with the cocktail effect, where it’s impossible to understand the person talking to us in a group because of the noise of everyone else talking. Bad acoustics create more noise and thus impede people’s ability to understand one another.

For more information on the negative effects of workplace noise, take a look at the video below:

Solving the noise problem with good acoustics

All too often, modern architects and designers use hard materials because they look clean and stylish, and are durable and easy to clean. However, because the designers often have little or no training in acoustics, they don’t understand the effects of this kind of design. Bad acoustics increase noise levels dramatically – and the louder the noise, the greater the negative impacts.

In contrast, research shows that well-designed acoustics improve effectiveness, well-being and happiness for the people in working and living spaces. Good office design that takes into account visual aesthetics, sustainability, value for money and acoustic effect can achieve the perfect balance for the health, effectiveness and happiness of workers.

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