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Buildings are noisy because architects don’t study sound

Photo credit: Graeme Maclean licensed under CC BY 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Most of us assume when we walk into a very noisy building that it must be ok, because if it weren’t, wouldn’t somebody have thought of a solution to the problem? But it’s a simple fact that planners and architects spend little to no time thinking about noise and sound, unless they are designing a theater or performance space.

Architects don’t inhabit the spaces they design. And they can’t show clients pictures of what their projects will sound like, unless they spend some money on modeling sound conditions.

This fairly sparse article at least touches on this vast area of ignorance about sound among architects, planners, and grad school faculty.

The foundations of acoustical science are well over a century old and well respected, but they are embedded in physics, not art and architecture. Not every architect and planner is ignorant of the subject—there are some exceptions–but the plain fact is architects do not know how to design for good sound quality. They rely on specialists from physics, and those people cost money. As a result, noise is typically not recognized as a problem until after a building has been built and the planners, architects, designers, and contractors have all gone home and deposited their checks.  And then it is often too late.

So next time you’re in a nicely designed space that you find is too noisy, remember that it’s very likely no one thought about the soundscape until it was too late and hoped you wouldn’t notice. Be sure to tell them that you do.

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

The future of work is not in noisy offices, NY Times survey says

Photo credit: Rum Bucolic Ape licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The future of work is not in cacophonous offices, a New York Times survey says. Pandemic-related working from home has accelerated a pivotal, even historic, change: people do not want to go back to their old noisy, politically-charged, distracting, disease-spreading offices. Many–60% according to the New York Times survey–say they’d rather continue to work from home as much as possible.

Could this be the next big driver of “knowledge-worker productivity,” i.e., no commuting, no irrelevant distractions, no pointless meetings in airless conference rooms
with management bringing in the boxes of donuts as a concession? If management buys into this change, hooray!

The whole open plan office fad has really been driven by two things: bean-counters trying to reduce the fixed costs of providing workspace for knowledge workers, while simultaneously satisfying the perceived need by managers enjoy seeing and “counting heads” of everyone under their control by simply looking across the open office floor. There’s been plenty of talk for decades about the advantages of “teaming,” “collaboration,” “sharing,” “cooperation,” and “camaraderie.”

But the bottom line has really been about…the bottom line. Open plan offices save money by spending less on both fixed assets (buildings) and peoples’ needs for space where they can really focus and concentrate, and giving them instead a “hotel-style” chair amidst many others at picnic-style tables and shared kitchens with fully stocked refrigerators so they never need to leave.

Things are changing! Now what will corporations do with all of that empty office space?

David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: QCI Healthcare Acoustics Project, ANSI Committee S12-WG44, the Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Committee. He is lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0” (Springer, 2012), a contributor to the NAE’s “Technology for a Quieter America” and the GSA’s “Sound Matters,” and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics at Rensselaer Polytech. A graduate of UC-Berkeley with advanced degrees from Cornell, he is a frequent organizer of professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Why can’t you hear?

Photo credit: Helena Lopes from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This piece in the Canadian edition of Psychology Today asks “Why can’t you hear?,” but a better title might be “Why can’t you understand speech in a noisy room?”

This problem is known in audiology circles as the “speech in noise” problem. People can understand what someone is saying just fine in a quiet room, but can’t follow a conversation in a noisy one. The problem has been known for decades, but now it is thought that the cause is cochlear synaptopathy, also called hidden hearing loss because hearing test results–technically known as pure tone audiometry–are normal despite the patient’s complaints of not being able to hear.

The problem can be assessed clinically by a number of tests, including the Hearing in Noise Test and the QuickSIN test. Now researchers at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary have developed two tests, one measuring pupillary responses and the other recording electrical signals from the ear drum.

The inability to understand speech in noise is a frustrating one. Hearing aids usually don’t help much, although newer digital hearing aids with special features claim to do better.

Much better than any hearing aid, though, is preserved natural hearing. Protect your ears. If something sounds too loud, it is too loud. Turn down the volume, use hearing protection, leave the area, or you might have speech n noise difficulty later.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

If towns can limit dollar stores, why can’t they regulate noise?

Photo credit: Mike Mozart licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This opinion piece by Victor Luckerson in The New York Times describes how one Tulsa, Oklahoma citizen, an employee of the Tulsa County Health Department, ran for the Tulsa City Council, and then took on dollar stores and the poor-quality food items they carried. There was some opposition, but she was able to get legislation passed to limit new dollar stores in her North Tulsa neighborhood. Now a real supermarket is in the works to serve the food needs of the historically African-American neighborhood.

The article reports that other cities have replicated Tulsa’s laws. Explaining the motivation of politicians and citizens in pushing back against dollar stores, the article concludes:

Ms. Hall-Harper stresses that her goal isn’t to eliminate dollar stores, only to limit their runaway growth. Nevertheless, she has become part of a vanguard of city leaders pushing back against America’s winner-take-all economy — from New York City’s protests against Amazon to new laws in California and Boston limiting the expansion of app-based services like Uber and Airbnb. Capitalism might not be going anywhere, but the residents of North Tulsa will have it on their own terms.

If cities can regulate dollar stores and indoor and even outdoor smoking, they can regulate noise. Noise is unwanted and/or harmful sound. All it takes is one elected official to understand that noise adversely affects human health and function and that his or her responsibility is to protect those they represent.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.