Tag Archive: design

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.

What kind of sound should electric cars make to warn pedestrians?

Photo credit: Mike from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This interesting article in The New York Times discusses carmakers’ efforts to choose the sound their electric cars will make. Electric motors are quieter than internal combustion motors, and regulations in Europe and the U.S. require–or will require–electric and hybrid powered vehicles to make sounds that warn pedestrians of their approach, especially the visually impaired.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data show that hybrid electric vehicles were 35% more likely than standard cars to be involved in a pedestrian accident, and 57% more likely to be involved in an accident with a bicycle. Personally, I think the problem may be greater for distracted pedestrians who are talking or texting on their phones than it is for the visually impaired.

If vehicles can be required to make sound, they can also be required to be quieter. So the principle of regulations about vehicle noise would appear to be without controversy. And the same principle needs to be extended to vehicles, such as the muscle cars and Harley-Davidson motorcycles also mentioned in the article, that make too much noise.

Actually, there are existing federal regulations and regulations in many states about vehicle noise, but these are rarely if ever enforced—and that needs to change.

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.

How the sound of buildings affects us

Photo credit: Riccardo Bresciani from Pexels

Lakshmi Sandhana, The BBC, writes about how the acoustic qualities of our homes, offices, and public spaces impacts our comfort level and may even affect our moods.

Sandhana notes that even though we rely on eyes to help us navigate our world, “our ears are constantly picking up information from our surroundings that unconsciously alters how we feel about a space.”

Fortunately, people are starting to understand that buildings and spaces need to be acoustically satisfying and not just visually attractive or useful. Writes Sandhana:

Scientific research suggests they are wise to do so. Noisy work and home settings have been proven to annoy people, and noise annoyance itself has been linked to depression and anxiety. Furthermore, issues concentrating in the workplace due to office noise and intermittent noise has been found to significantly reduce human performance.

Not to mention how noise affects our ability to enjoy a meal.

Sandhana reports that the way sound interacts with a building’s physical structure can even affect our emotions, noting, for example, that an open space can make us feel freer.

And there are whole disciplines, now, says Sandhana, that are focusing on materials and technologies that could help abate noise in cities and reduce sound pressures above recommended levels. In fact, Sandhana tells us that virtual reality systems are allowing architects to hear “how the spaces they design might sound like through ‘auralisations’ of structures using acoustic modeling software.”

It’s all very exciting. But perhaps most exciting of all is reading that sound and noise in public and private spaces may finally be getting the attention that it deserves.



How restaurants got so loud

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Kate Wagner, writing for The Atlantic Monthly, discusses the architectural and interior design changes that make restaurants so loud. At the moment, restaurants are full so there is no economic incentive for restaurateurs to make them quieter. Just as there was no economic incentive for restaurateurs to make restaurants smoke-free.

In many restaurants, ambient noise is high enough to cause auditory damage. And in most others, it is high enough to make it impossible for anyone with hearing loss, which includes most Americans over age 65, to participate in conversations.

I used to think that if enough patrons complained about restaurant noise, the restaurateurs would make restaurants quieter. But now I think that, as with getting smoke-free restaurants, legislation is needed.

Think globally, act locally. If anyone has a friend or family member serving on a local city council or town meeting, please ask them to take action to make restaurants quieter.

I can guarantee that people will still patronize restaurants when they are quieter. In fact, I think business will probably increase when people see that they can enjoy their steak frites without a side order of hearing loss.

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.

U.S. ends “noiseless” electric cars

U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has finalized rules regarding electric vehicles requiring that “any four-wheeled vehicle with a GVWR of less than 10,000 pounds must emit a pedestrian-warning noise at speeds below 18.6 miles per hour.”

So what will the pedestrian-warning sound like? It’s not been determined yet, writes Steph Willems, Hybriedcars.com, noting that people who have driven an electric vehicle with a pedestrian-warning noise find it “can be unsettling, even unpleasant.” Willems adds that the NHTSA hasn’t yet decided whether to give drivers a choice of sounds, though “automakers hope to have owners select from a list of regulator-approved warning tones.”

Let’s hope that someone with some taste and sense is involved in the decision-making, because the consequences of allowing brand managers and marketers to make that decision is, at best, horrifying.

There’s a booming market for fancy noise-absorbing objects

Photo credit: SparkCBC licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Want to take a guess why? Yes, open offices. Sarah Kessler, Quartz, examines the world of open offices and the designers who try to fix them, like Aaron Taylor Harvey, the head of Airbnb’s internal architecture and interior design group. So what does Harvey do to control the din at Airbnb? His team hung “a series of banners set two feet apart and made out of recycled cotton” from the ceiling of a large open space, wrapped surfaces with “sound-absorbing panels that look like fabric wallpaper, and strategically placed sound-absorbing walls to separate areas of noisy collaboration from those with quiet focus.”

But these are new, cutting edge tech companies. They aren’t going to be satisfied with those beige fabric covered cubicle frames that traditional corporations use.  No, today’s designers are making the banners like those used at Airbnb with recycled denim. “[T]hey’re ideal for companies, like Airbnb, that want to be environmentally friendly,” writes Kessler. One company makes “sound-absorption panels that look like wood, and sound-permeable paint that can help disguise a panel as a piece of art,” while another “builds sound absorption into lamps, furniture, and room dividers.”

No doubt the cost of all these high-end fixes are cheaper than, say, providing a quiet space to each of Airbnb’s employees, but at what point do corporate executives and their bean counters decide that maybe the best option is to provide employees with an office where they can actually get their work done?

Yet another article on how to “design around” the “open office noise problem”

Startup Stock Photos

TechRepublic writes about the “new study from Oxford Economics [that] claims that open office floor plans can hurt employee productivity” in a piece titled, “Here’s how to design the best office for your employees.”  And once again we are compelled to respond as follows: When will this assault on employee productivity and morale end?  Why can’t *they* bring back private work spaces?

It seems clear that nothing will be done until the bean counters can quantify the enormous costs of open plan offices.  No doubt part of the problem is that it’s hard to put a dollar figure on employee distraction, frustration, and decreased morale.  But one thing is clear, the absolute raft of articles on how much employees hate open plan offices indicates that they are a problem that needs to be solved or redesigned or otherwise dealt with.  One day some newly minted management genius will rediscover pre-open plan office design, repackage it slightly, and give it a new name, and after the applause dies down, *they* will follow.

Electric cars must make noise after September 2019:


“Quiet Car” rule will require all electric vehicles to make noise, so pedestrians can better hear and avoid them.  CNET.com reports on the long-awaited National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rule requiring auto manufacturers to add waterproof, temperature resistant sound generators to hybrid and electric vehicles sold after September 1, 2019.  Referred to as vehicle warning sounds, the sound will be automatically activated when a car travels at speeds below 18.6 miles per hour.

Electric and hybrid cars are noticeably quieter than cars powered by an internal combustion engine.  This fact drew the attention of advocates for the blind and visually impaired a decade ago, ultimately leading to the passage of the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act (PSEA) of 2010.  The PSEA is intended to reduce the risk of harm to blind and visually impaired pedestrians, as well as cyclists, or anyone unable to hear the very quiet approach of these cars, by requiring electric and hybrid cars to emit a minimum added sound.  The issue regarding this requirement is complex and contentious, and it has generated a lot of research and extended discourse both for and against added sound.  Many electric and hybrid cars have used added sound for years; samples of some sounds can be found online.

A significant concern is that some automakers see the need to comply with the rule as an opportunity to invent branded sounds, while critics of branded sounds would prefer sounds as similar as possible to a vehicle engine, noting that discordant or unusual sounds could actually create confusion.  In addition, environmental advocates and soundscape preservationists have expressed concern about adding more noise to an overburdened soundscape.

One problem with reaching a sensible solution is that the instructional videos produced by industry tend to show cars and pedestrians interacting in open spaces, but real world experiences are more likely to occur in busy parking lots or residential streets.  Measures such as traffic calming and slow zones could result in a growing number of areas where driving below 20 miles per hour would be the norm in order to improve safety for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers.  One thing is clear, vehicle engineers must incorporate these details into the planning of current and future warning sounds.

Asked about branded sound design, Jeanine Botta, who runs the Green Car Integrity Project blog, said that she hopes sound designers will follow the rule’s requirement that sound be recognizable as a motor vehicle in operation, and let go of branding concepts.  “Our attention is already stretched to its maximum potential.  No pedestrian – or cyclist or motorist – should have to quickly process and interpret any sound, especially one intended for safety.  If a sound is the least bit discordant, it runs the risk of being misinterpreted and ignored.”

Automotive product developers considering new and improved added quiet car sound should include industry outsiders in the research and development process.  Consultation with environmental psychologists, environmental health researchers, acoustic ecologists, and soundscape preservationists would be a step in the right direction.


And the world just got a little bit quieter:

Rejoice! Apple removes irritating startup chime from MacBook Pros.

We can’t help but think that the removal of any noise–even something as seemingly innocuous as the startup chime on a MacBook Pro–is a good thing.  That manufacturers insist on using sound to indicate that some act or thing was achieved really needs to end.  One hopes Apple’s move will herald similar action by other computer manufacturers until eventually one common layer of sound comes to an end.

Link via @jeaninebotta.

Noise reduction has become a “major preoccupation” in Scandinavian interiors

Acoustics were the hot topic at Stockholm Furniture Fair, with designers and brands launching products aimed at making interiors quieter.

One of the fair’s jurors noted that “designers have neglected noise in interiors for too long,” adding that they fail to consider sound because they focus solely on whether a design looks nice.  Most of the designs were in response to the open floor plans corporations have adopted as a way to squeeze as many employees into as little a footprint as possible, as a “side effect of this is that workers’ productivity is increasingly affected by noise distractions.”  No doubt the cost of distraction hits the bottom line in one way or another, as the article states that there is a great deal of demand for these products in Scandinavia.  One hopes American designers embrace the noise reduction trend sooner rather than later.