Health
Sound/Acoustics
Sustainability
Wellbeing
Noise Pollution

Exploring the link between building acoustics, health and well-being

Warren Dudding
23 May 2022

Have you ever wondered how buildings contribute to how we feel? Rockfon NA recently partnered with the International Well Building Institute (IWBI) to share insights into this topic.

How a building looks is important, but how a building makes you feel when you’re spending time inside it is even more so – especially considering that we spend 90 percent of our time indoors[1]. Designing and building for human health and well-being is growing in significance across all space types, from schools and offices to medical facilities. Acoustic comfort, key metrics such as the noise reduction coefficient (commonly abbreviated to NRC), and relevant building standards and guidelines are all critical components of facility design for designers, building owners and product manufacturers alike.

Older buildings often lack acoustic consideration

Recent analysis of data from the Center for the Built Environment’s Occupant Survey[2], which included over 90,000 respondents from approximately 900 buildings over a 20-year span, revealed a serious issue with acoustics. Although more than two-thirds of the respondents were satisfied with their buildings overall, the majority were dissatisfied with these same buildings’ acoustic performance. In fact, of all the metrics surveyed, dissatisfaction was highest with sound privacy (54 percent dissatisfied), temperature (39 percent), and noise level (34 percent). A vast difference exists between our current goals for human health and wellbeing and how many buildings were designed acoustically in the past.

“As always, noise is a top concern amongst those that have been surveyed. It is the main source of workplace dissatisfaction,” says Ethan Bourdeau, Sound Concept Lead for the Standard Development team at the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI). “According to the Leesman Index, 75 percent of employees feel that better acoustics are an important quality in an effective workplace, however only 30 percent  of employees were satisfied with noise levels in their workplace.”

Of course, not everyone works in an office. A workplace can also be a school or medical care facility.

“In poor acoustic environments, patient rehospitalisation rates are higher,” adds Dr. Jo Solet, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Division of Sleep Medicine. “Noise can disrupt patient sleep and impair communication leading to medical errors. Acoustics impact clinical outcomes.”

Understanding acoustic standards

Thankfully, the link between acoustics and health and well-being is now an established one, and as a result, there is growing focus on building acoustics in offices, schools and medical care facilities. Most modern building standards, guidelines and certification systems have at least minimum or prerequisite acoustics requirements. Some also have additional requirements for enhanced or optimised acoustic environments. Key topics include controlling indoor noise and reverberation with high-performing, sound absorbing surfaces, isolating enclosed rooms from adjacent areas with robust walls and floor slabs and ensuring that background sound is not too loud or too quiet. In European countries, complying with these acoustic requirements is typically a legal requirement, whereas in North American countries, compliance is mostly voluntary.

Greater understanding about how the acoustics requirements in these standards can materialise inside actual buildings can be gained from looking at specific examples of an office building, school and medical care facility – and these can be explored in recent white paper published as a result of the Rockfon and IWBI cooperation and webinar.

More stringent acoustic criteria are certainly leading the way for healthier spaces. And more building owners, who appreciate the link between acoustics and wellbeing and are willing to invest in it, are opting to design their spaces with the acoustic requirements in these evolved standards. Product manufacturers are also responding with innovation, technology and engineering to provide higher performing options that are also favourable from the perspectives of fire safety, natural light reflection, low emissions/indoor air quality and sustainability/recyclability. So the building industry appears to be on the right path for the next 20 years.

[1] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 1989. Report to Congress on indoor air quality: Volume 2. EPA/400/1-89/001C. Washington, DC

[2] Graham, L. T., Parkinson, T., & Schiavon, S. (2021). Lessons learned from  20 years of CBE’s occupant surveys. Buildings and Cities, 2(1), 166–184. DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/bc.76