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The art of soundproof design

Noise isn’t just tough on your nerves, it’s also bad for your physical and mental health. As we discover more about its negative effects, architects and designers are finding innovative ways to make spaces easier on the ears.

Kristin Hohenadelaverage reading time 6 minutes

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Along with elements such as light and air quality, noise is a crucial factor in determining the health and liveability of the built environment. Yet with the exception of concert halls and cathedrals, all but the most thoughtfully conceived, human-centred buildings treat the impact of noise as an afterthought. This means we inhabit apartments whose thin walls are exposed by the arrival of loud neighbours, and suffer deafening restaurants, ear-piercing school cafeterias, noisy hotel suites that disrupt sleep and hospital rooms that inhibit rest and healing.

Noise pollution is a public health issue that “interferes with normal activities such as sleeping, conversation, or disrupts or diminishes one’s quality of life”, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “The fact that you can’t see, taste or smell it may help explain why it has not received as much attention as other types of pollution, such as air pollution, or water pollution.”

While noise sensitivity varies, its effects on our minds and bodies are real. “The air around us is constantly filled with sounds, yet most of us would probably not say we are surrounded by noise,” according to the EPA. “Though for some, the persistent and escalating sources of sound can often be considered an annoyance. This ‘annoyance’ can have major consequences, primarily to one’s overall health.”

Sick of sound

Research has shown that the wide-ranging negative effects of noise on physical and mental health include hearing loss and tinnitus, depression and anxiety, sleep disturbances, hypertension and heart problems.

If the inescapable sound of nearby air traffic, your office heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system, the barking of a neighbourhood (or a workplace) dog, or the never-ending DIY or late-night sexcapades of an upstairs neighbour is driving you mad, even things you might dismiss as simply annoying can be bad for your health.

“Annoyance is the most prevalent response to environmental noise and may result in negative emotional responses, including poor mental health and high levels of perceived stress,” according to a study on adults living in multistorey housing in Denmark.

Black and white etching showing a man at a window wearing a wig holding a violin bow and with his hands covering his ears. In the street scene in front of this window, a woman appears to be singing and holding a crying baby; a child spins a rattle and another urinates against wall; a man plays a flute; a boy beats a drum; a person pedals a device whilst a dog barks at his feet; a man blows a horn; and another clutches the side of his face and appears to be moaning aloud. In the distance, cats fight on a rooftop and a sweep emerges from a chimney and appears to be waving.

As this Hogarth etching from 1741 shows, noisy surroundings have long been a problem, especially for people living in cities.

Noise can even impair cognitive development in children according to Dr Arline L Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist and a board member of the environmental group GrowNYC. In the 1970s she discovered that children in a classroom exposed to noise from an elevated train that passed by every 4.5 minutes had lower reading levels than those on the quieter side of the school. When the transit authority fitted the train tracks with rubber pads and the board of education simultaneously supplied the classroom with acoustic panels, reading levels rose to match the students on the other side of the building.

Bronzaft’s landmark study demonstrated that diagnosing, preventing and battling environmental noise pollution is a complex effort that requires education, awareness and a multi-pronged approach from developers, city planners, architects and interior designers, as well as building owners and occupants.

MORE: How light pollution affects our circadian rhythms

The quest for greener noise control

Acoustics has been taught in architecture programmes like London South Bank University’s School of the Built Environment and Architecture, which has been offering diplomas in acoustics and noise control since 1975. The Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore offers a two-year acoustical studies masters degree to train a new generation of architectural and product acoustic designers to take a proactive rather than merely corrective approach to designing healthier acoustic environments.

But the buck doesn’t stop with architects. The outdated practices of the construction industry contribute to much of the world’s noise pollution. Construction noise is often so torturous, in fact, that the greediest landlords of New York City have been known to use it as an eviction tactic to drive out rent-controlled tenants.

Scanned image from a black and white 'Architect and Engineer' magazine page. Image at the top shows a man, named as Mr Don A. Proudfoot, holding a piece of soundproofing material called the Simpson Acoustical Tile.

By 1947, acoustical engineering expertise developed from submarine warfare was being implemented to help make homes and businesses more quiet.

The need for healthier buildings – according to the World Green Building Council, buildings and construction worldwide account for 39 per cent of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – has been gaining momentum in recent years. But while a multidisciplinary team of experts from the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health identified noise as one of the ‘Nine Foundations of a Healthy Building’, paradoxically, green buildings often have poorer acoustics than conventional buildings.

This is due to factors including the lower emphasis on acoustics in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and similar green buildings certification systems, and the fact that green building practices often eschew sound-absorbing building materials and sound-muffling elements such as acoustic panelling and carpeting.

The good news is that green roofs are excellent at providing acoustic insulation and that there is an emerging market for more sustainable acoustic materials with plenty of room for innovation.

Green buildings might benefit nature but they are not always peaceful – though green roofs are both excellent soundproofing and environmentally friendly.

Troubleshooting acoustic ills

In the meantime, because the world is already full of imperfect buildings, consultants, entrepreneurs and designers have stepped in to offer makeshift solutions to mitigate the ill effects of poor acoustics. NYC resident Gregory Scott, who suffers from hearing loss, was having a hard time finding restaurants and bars quiet enough for him to hear his dates. So he created SoundPrint, a free app that helps locals crowdsource to find quiet restaurants and bars, with a decibel reader that allows users to measure noise and leave reviews.

Acoustic consultant Alan Fierstein, the owner and founder of NYC-based Acoustilog, which has been specialising in “practical, no-nonsense solutions to acoustic problems” for nearly 40 years, offers a list of noise-related questions on his company website that house hunters might not otherwise think to ask, but which might save them from discovering they’ve just invested their life savings in an acoustical nightmare.

Homeowners should also consider the noise impact of design trends and lifestyle choices before embarking on a renovation or DIY project. Knocking down walls to convert traditional architecture into open-plan living spaces often creates unanticipated noise issues that have to be rectified later. Sliding barn doors are space saving and novel in barn-free spaces like apartments and homes, but they don’t offer the sonic insulation of regular doors, making them a poor choice for a home office, say, or a bathroom.

Open-plan offices carved out from industrial buildings and outfitted with ping-pong tables and communal spaces seem fun but are notoriously bad for productivity. Even minimalist design aesthetics that lack the noise-tamping effects of soft furnishings, curtains or walls of bookshelves can create a cacophony of unintended consequences that no pair of noise-cancelling headphones or shooting-grade earplugs could ever remedy.

These trends have created a cottage industry of modern designers who specialise in stylish, innovative acoustic retrofits to absorb, block and/or mask noise at home and at work. These include decorative acoustic wall panels, sophisticated dual-purpose acoustic lighting, and an ever-expanding range of furniture designed specifically for open-plan offices from industry leaders such as Steelcase, as well as smaller independent designers.

With varying degrees of art and science, many offer attractive sticking-plaster solutions for those unable to hire an architect to custom build the phonic ideal of the perfect home or office from scratch.

About the contributors

Photograph of writer Kristin Hohenadel.

Kristin Hohenadel

Kristin Hohenadel is an American writer and editor based in Paris. Her work has appeared widely in publications including the New York Times, Slate and Fast Company.