People’s performance levels and ability to concentrate can be negatively affected by noise and it can make it harder for them to share knowledge with one another. It can also reduce their levels of comfort and wellbeing, and even cause health problems such as hearing impairment (e.g. tinnitus or hearing loss), voice problems, cardiovascular diseases, sleep disturbance and increased stress levels (Burden of disease from environmental noise, WHO, 2011). The World Health Organisation even indicates that at least one million healthy life years are lost annually from environmental and occupational noise in Western Europe (Burden of disease, WHO, 2011). There is a commercial cost as well in not designing the right sound scape in the workplace.
A 2013 survey from Gensler Architecture produced found that 77% of US employees preferred quiet when they needed to focus and 69% were dissatisfied with the noise levels at their main workplaces. Overall workplace performance had dropped by 6% and the time spent collaborating had gone down by 20% compared to 20085.
Architects need to design with their ears as well as their eyes, the sound expert Julian Treasure said in a TED Global talk he gave in Edinburgh in 2012 and that has now received almost half a million online views.
One school in the UK was designed like a corporate HQ, Treasure recalled at TED Global, with a vast, central atrium and classrooms leading off it without back walls. The unfortunate result was that the children couldn’t hear their teachers and the walls had to be reinstalled at a cost of £600,000.
Hospitals are especially bad at sound planning. Where the atmosphere should be as quiet as possible, noise levels have actually doubled since 1972. The New England Journal of Medicine described hospital noise as ‘pandemonium!’ (Julian Treasure, TED Global)
In traditional classrooms, Treasure added, children in the fourth row of a classroom can typically only hear 50% of the lesson (TED). ‘They are losing one word in every two,’ Treasure tells the TED audience. It means they have to work harder to connect the dots, he added. In a classroom where the acoustical level produces a reverberation time of 1.2 it is extremely hard to make out what the teacher is saying, which Treasure demonstrated to great effect with a recording. If you can take that down to 0.4 through the use of sound absorbing materials, the teacher becomes much more intelligible.
In a German study (Rantala & Vilkman, 1999) conducted amongst teachers 50% of the respondents reported voice problems, with 16% even experiencing temporary voice loss (about three times higher when compared to other professions). A US study (Smith, Gray, Dove, Kirchner, Heras, 1997) found that 20% of the respondents had missed work in the previous year as a result of voice problems.
In corporate offices sound management is of equal importance affecting productivity, health and wellbeing. Noise need not be excessively loud to cause problems in the workplace, such as chronic hearing loss, stress, voice problems, cardiovascular problems, decreased learning ability and longer patient recovery periods.
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