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Sustainable Design Starts With Good Acoustics

Written By
Children's National Research and Innovation Campus

Like other sustainability-minded people, I worry about the continued damage to the environment and try to find ways to make the greatest impact. Hopefully, our readers know that good acoustics are important, but part of sustainable design? Who cares about a noisy neighbor when sea levels are rising?

The study of ecology is founded on studying the interconnectedness of organisms and their environments. And we know that noise (i.e. unwanted sound) in our environments is harmful to both humans and animals. So let’s think of noise pollution as, well, pollution. What if we could see all of the unwanted noise we create spreading through our communities – like soot spreading from a smokestack? Like we can’t close off our lungs to polluted air, we can’t control our body’s response to noise, which can manifest in such ways as:

  • Poor sleep: It’s pretty common knowledge that proper sleep is a foundation of good health, and that it’s difficult to sleep in the presence of noise. And even if you can fall asleep, our brains continue to process the noise around us. Even relatively low sound levels raise our blood pressure – like a dripping faucet!
  • Stress: Many studies have been done showing the link between stress and noise. Physically, noise exposure increases the risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, diabetes, strokes, just to name a few. Mentally, noise can lead to poor focus/concentration, irritability, and depression.
  • Healing: Noise in environments that are supposed to be healing is a huge problem. On the staff level, noise from activity and machines limits communication, increases staff stress, and can lead to alarm fatigue, which all compromises the care they are able to give. For the patients, noises of the bustle around them can disrupt sleep, increase stress, prolong healing times, and increase the chance of rehospitalization.
  • Learning: For our future generations, noise exposure in classrooms can disrupt student’s attention, reduce focus, and cover up (i.e. mask) the information that teachers are trying to convey.

Although this was only a brief introduction, I hope that it starts to clarify that noise is more than a nuisance. This is why some of the biggest sustainable, health and wellness rating systems that we have available to us recognize the need for proper acoustics and have made specific acoustic criteria. This includes LEED, WELL and FitWel. In fact, acoustics is so important in some of these systems that they have become requirements.