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Sounds in professional practice

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Sound is all around us, indoors and outdoors. In this article we will explore indoor noise pollution. In buildings such as offices, hospitals and restaurants and in public spaces, people often experience noise pollution. We all have a memory where the noise was intolerable and focusing on anything was impossible.

We experience various types of noise pollution. If the sounds we hear are loud they can be quite annoying, especially when the noise continues for a considerable period. If you can hear the conversations going on around you, your ability to focus on work will be negatively affected.

While waiting for our turn to be served at a place with counters or service desks we often hear the conversations around us. There is a lack of what could be called speech privacy in such situations. Of course we are all familiar with situations in restaurants where having a proper conversation is almost impossible. Due to loud ambient noise people can barely hear themselves talk, let alone their conversation partner. However in theatres the level of speech intelligibility must be high to ensure that everyone, not only in the front but also in back seats can properly hear the actors.

Open-plan offices
Noise nuisance is also very common in large open-plan offices. In such spaces speech intelligibility tends to be good, often too good. There is generally a lack of speech privacy.

Is noise pollution a new thing? No, in the early twentieth century the physicist Etienne Lombard determined that speech intelligibility is negatively affected in a large room when several people are talking at once. This is called the Lombard effect also known as the cocktail party effect.

Did people not experience noise nuisance in the past? They certainly did. However in the old days our behaviour tended to be less exuberant. People made fewer phone calls and there were far fewer audio-visual sounds, if any, most of the noise produced was mechanical. We very rarely notice or come in to contact with many mechanical sounds. The human voice now plays a more prominent part in the noise pollution we experience in buildings.

How to combat noise nuisance
The results of a quick internet search allows us to choose one of countless acoustic products. But how to determine which product will actually solve our noise issues?

First we have to determine the nature of the noise issue. Are we dealing with a space that is considered ‘loud’ or is the issue caused by impaired speech intelligibility in a large room? Finally, could this be a need for concentration space or a meeting room where sounds from within the room and outside it can still be heard?

When choosing products we often add random elements to our rooms thinking that they will provide a solution. Our choice determined by the look colour and price tag of the product.

In many cases noise issues can be attributed to the design of the room. Open-plan offices housing many employees are very likely to generate noise nuisance.

Perhaps consider specific design guidelines, e.g. do not let more than four to eight employees share a room of a certain size. It also expresses the acoustic quality of a room in terms of reverberation time and lists various insulation values for partitions between various types of rooms.

Tip: Have a watch of the TED talk by Julian Treasure in which he explains what noise pollution is and calls on people to pay more attention to noise levels by adjusting their viewpoints and particularly their designs: ‘we must design more with our ears, rather than with our eyes'.

No half-measures
Noise pollution has a considerable impact on employees. It will ultimately affect organisation productivity if timely and appropriate measures are not taken.

Avoid half-measures that will not result in clearly discernible improvement. We recommend seeking an expert’s advice, including a sound level measurement. The expert can then determine what measures are required to solve the issue. If large spaces are involvedthe recommended solutions will not just involve noise absorption materials but also sound barriers. Such barriers will ensure that sounds cannot spread across the room. Where smaller rooms are concerned experts will generally recommend incorporating measures into the design that take in to account the number of employees using the room and the nature of the activities for which the room is intended.

The image shows four acoustic panels incorporated in a wall. These will provide comfortable acoustics in a room housing six employees who spend a great deal of time talking on the telephone and to others.

In brief:
  • Determine the nature of the problem 
  • Get an expert’s opinion
  • Determine the acoustic specifications of certain products
  • Do not just think in terms of measures to be taken but consider reorganising things as well
  • Determine your budget for improvements

Gijs van Wijk
Managing Director, Akoestiek Comfort
Visual and auditory issues consultancy
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