How does noise affect your performance and concentration?

Did you realise that exposure to noise can reduce our ability to concentrate significantly? Studies show that distracting noises in an office can reduce our work performance by 66%. Keep reading to find out the implications of sound disturbances, and what you can do to improve your indoor acoustics.

Acoustics is the science of sound and how it behaves in space: how the sound is made, how it travels and how it is heard. The perception of sound is subjective – we all experience it differently.

Building acoustics are an important consideration in the design and functioning of most buildings and can have a significant impact on people’s health and wellbeing, communication and productivity. The configuration and size of indoor spaces, the materials used inside the building and the level and type of external noise all affect the acoustic environment.

Implications of noise disturbances

Humans depend on the information they gather from their senses to navigate their environments. The human auditory system constantly receives stimuli that influence the nervous system. The ability to discern the intensity of the different stimulus is vital to human perception and awareness. Excessive noise levels will reduce the ability to distinguish sounds due to habituation and adaptation, which is a natural response by the human body.

Background and even low level noise in the home, work or school often disrupts people’s concentration. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, ambient noise also affects people’s health by increasing general stress levels and aggravating stress-related conditions such as high blood pressure, coronary disease, peptic ulcers and migraine headaches. Continued exposure does not lead to habituation; in fact, the effects worsen.

Several studies have indicated that stress resulting from ongoing noise can induce the release of cortisol, a hormone that helps to restore homeostasis in the body after a bad experience. Excess cortisol impairs function in the prefrontal cortex — an emotional learning centre that helps to regulate “executive” functions such as planning, reasoning and impulse control. Some recent evidence indicates that the prefrontal cortex also stores short-term memories. Changes to this region, therefore, may disrupt a person’s capacity to think clearly and to retain information.

Though not definitive, recent research also suggests that noise-induced stress may decrease dopamine availability in the prefrontal cortex, where the hormone controls the flow of information from other parts of the body. Stress resulting from background noise, then, may decrease higher brain function, impairing learning and memory.

Noise in schools

It is worth mentioning that compared to adults, adolescents are more sensitive to noise. What a forty-year-old architect hears in a building is vastly different from a 14-year-old’s experience. In many cases, architects tend to focus on visual and practical considerations while ignoring the effects of noise pollution on their building’s inhabitants.

For students specifically, the adverse health effects from excessive noise may include:

  • Reduced ability to acquire speech and language.
  • Impaired concentration, which may lead to lower academic performance.
  • Elevated blood pressure and cardiovascular ailments.
  • Changes in sleeping patterns that may further influence their ability to concentrate.
  • Tinnitus or Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) in the most severe cases.

At the same time, a noisy classroom will also influence the instructor. Teachers are less likely to talk to their students, or spend less time talking, when the environment contains elevated noise levels. Even the most dedicated educators can fall victim to voice fatigue in noisy classrooms, which will reduce their ability to engage with their students.

Noise in the workplace

Noise disturbance is often one of the most significant causes of discomfort in offices. Detrimental sound, often referred to as noise, can hinder concentration, cause stress and contribute to sleep problems, hearing damage and cardiovascular disease.

Office acoustics can be defined by the background noise level (speaking, telephones and office equipment), the amount of acoustic privacy and how sound travels and echoes in the space. The degree to which a person finds a sound distracting depends on many factors including the task he or she is doing. Open-plan offices and workplaces where users with different job types share a space can be particularly challenging in terms of noise levels and acoustic privacy. A space can also be too quiet for users to feel comfortable because it highlights any noise and makes it difficult to have privacy for speaking.

Multiple studies have shown that too much noise in the office can seriously reduce productivity and increase stress, not to mention lower job satisfaction and employee morale. In fact, research shows 49% of workers report not being able to concentrate easily, while the average person loses 86 minutes per day due to distractions. (Steelcase, 2014) Also, studies show that 99% of people surveyed reported that their concentration was impaired by office noise such as unanswered phones and background speech.

Noise in the home 

If you live in an apartment, you may unintentionally know the details of your neighbour’s life by overhearing conversations through your shared walls. Or you keep awake when the dog that lives in the apartment above decides to take a walk in the middle of the night. If so, you may live in an apartment with inadequate sound insulation in its walls and/or slabs.

As cities grow increasingly dense and builders seek to increase their profit margins, it is not uncommon for acoustic comfort to be overlooked in many architectural projects. When the resulting noise is excessive or unwanted, it impacts the human body, the mind, and daily activities. For many apartment dwellers, disturbing and unwanted noise is a fact of life, one that often seems like is unavoidable.

Tens of millions of Americans, including 12 percent to 15 percent of school-age children, already have permanent hearing loss caused by the everyday noise that we take for granted as a fact of life.

Since a huge chuck of time is spent at home, the apartment is a good place to start looking for ways to reduce the background noise of daily life.  While not all spaces need to seal all types of sound, creating spaces with an adequate degree of soundproofing improves the quality of life of all users.

Why we should improve our indoor acoustics

The world’s urban populations will continue to grow and estimates suggest that by 2050, more than two-thirds of humans will live in urban environments. Most of these individuals will end up in noisy cities “that never sleep.” In these environments, engineering and designing for noise will be vital to ensure human health in the future.

Across Europe, 16,600 premature deaths can be traced to excessive noise exposure and noise pollution amounts, to an annual cost of €40 billion. Creating the cities of the future will depend on a holistic assessment of human health and comfort, especially in environments where humans live, learn, work, and recover.

When it comes to our buildings of the future, there are some advice designers, architects, and urban planners can follow to make these have better acoustic properties for the sake of our health.

How to improve the acoustics in your space

The wellbeing and productivity gains that can result from improving acoustics are remarkable. Reducing the ambient, intrusive noise in our schools, for example, will lead to an improved learning experience for students, but also improve their long-term health.

In the case of the workplace, there are challenges to create spaces suitable for many activities, with enough acoustic absorption that many people can be talking and working without affecting productivity. Thus, acoustics can't be overlooked as they are key to creating a productivity powerhouse.

Let’s have a look at a few ways to improve our spaces’ sound quality, that go from the construction phase of the space, to its design and decor. 

Consider the layout of the space to separate low and high activity rooms

A way to design your space for better noise reduction, is by starting with the overall space layout, according to the functions of each room. For instance, the kitchen, dining, living, and laundry spaces, may be louder and more social areas than the bedroom, or the home office space. Think about creative ways to distribute these rooms in clusters to help compartmentalise noise. Louder rooms can be separated by sound-friendly furniture, as it will be mentioned further in this article. And even simpler, perhaps some of the noisier equipment (i.e. printer, washing machine, phone) can be situated in a separate room away from the room's inhabitants.

Choose the right materials for building your walls, floors and ceilings

All building materials have acoustic properties because they absorb, reflect, or transmit the sounds that affect them. When sound waves are reflected, they cause an increase in the general echo and reverberation levels in a space. That is, a space built with reflective materials, such as concrete, produces multiple echoes and little clarity of sound, which may be desirable for certain uses such as churches. In contrast, acoustic absorption is a phenomenon that minimises the reflection of sound waves in an environment, making the sound disappear immediately after its emission. The more absorbent the material that is added to the room, the shorter the reverberation time.

Materials considered "good sound absorbers" are light, soft, and porous. If the idea is to reduce the noise entering or leaving a room, the structural mass of the walls, the floor, and the ceiling must be increased, and the air spaces from windows and doors must be sealed. But if the purpose is to make the environment more pleasant, with less reverberation, what we seek is to absorb the sound.

The more absorbent materials, according to their sound absorption coefficients are glass wool, rock wool, acoustic foams, wood fibre acoustic panels.

If your space is already built, you may think of placing acoustic wall panels on your walls. 

Sound absorbing wall panels

Acoustic panels are available as boards or fabrics that you hang on walls. While most types are designed to stop noise from bouncing off hard surfaces, others are very effective at blocking racket from entering through a door or window.

Sound absorbing wall panels are incredibly effective in combatting noise pollution, though not all wall panels are aesthetically pleasing. Luckily there are more modern design options available today. For example, our moss panels, built with cork and moss are an excellent solution for sound absorption, certified with 50% of noise reduction. See here.

Also, you may consider sound absorber panels that stand on the floor, such as our design line moss products. See here.

Seal your rooms: soundproof loud rooms and create dedicated quiet spaces

We’re aware that soundproofing or improving insulation is time consuming and costly, however installing sound insulation material is an effective option for reducing noise in the space. This noise reduction strategy makes the most sense during a renovation or tenant fit up.

Fortunately, no matter where you live or what kind of space you have, there are many ways you can cut out noise without needing to blow your savings or reconstruct your home. Soundproofing doesn't have to be complicated or expensive, and even the simplest strategies can make a big difference.

Noise coming from doors

If you hear every conversation spoken in the hallway from the comfort of your sofa or bed, chances are there are big air gaps around your door. Sealing these leaks will quiet the noise. Sound travels on air, and any gap you can see light through will also let sound through.

If you have a large gap under your doors, you could add a door sweep, or draft stopper. You could use a commercial-grade sweep with a thick rubber strip that seals against the threshold for your front door; and a purchased or homemade draft stopper for the rest of your doors. This will also help keep out dust, drafts, as well as noise. If the rest of the door doesn't close tightly against the door jambs, seal along the sides and top of the door with foam weatherstripping.

Loud rooms with electronic appliances

You may have a couple of loud appliances in your home. If a loud background device from the living room can be find a new home in a soundproof locker or another room (maybe the newly-soundproofed laundry room?), it will reduce the noise level in the whole apartment for good, saving your ears in the process. Equally, try considering energy-efficient appliances as they tend to run much quieter. Not only does installing an environmentally-friendly item into your home mean less noise, but it'll also have an impact on your peace of mind as you're actively contributing to helping the planet. Consider a new high-efficiency washer, refrigerator or dishwasher or other ways to reduce energy consumption.

Seal windows

Additionally, you may consider window inserts if your windows are thin and not greatly insulated. These are clear panes of glass or acrylic that you install over your existing windows. They're designed to create an airtight seal that reduces outside noise by 50 percent or more. Some are designed to quickly pop out when they aren't needed, making it convenient to open the window for fresh air. 

A dedicated quiet place

Once in a while it’s good to get away to a quiet place within your indoor space. If quieting your entire home, office or business is not an option, you could design one specific quiet room to apply all soundproofing methods described here. 

Soften surfaces, add comfort and textiles

Sound loves to bounce off and through hard, flat objects such as glass, hardwood floor and tile. Adding carpet, plush furniture, window trimmings and even plants can turn a hard, flat room into a softer, quieter area.

Cover Floors with Rugs

One of the best ways to reduce noise levels in a space is to cover the floor with carpets. If you have hard floors, it makes sense to thrown down a thick rug. 

First, consider ways to cover hard surfaces or fill empty spaces. An area rug is an easy, sure-fire way to reduce noise levels. Consider a subtle-patterned, hand-woven cotton rug to add a lavish and charming touch. If you're interested in something slightly more daring and fun, consider using a fluffy shag rug or a classic Persian-style carpet with a floral pattern. For more eco-friendly options, hemp rugs are a hot ticket item. Carpet tiles are another alternative, and can be especially useful when trying to dampen noise coming from a downstairs neighbour.

Here's a little-known tip: Slipping a density rug pad underneath it will boost your rug's noise squashing potential.

Cover windows and walls with curtains, drapes or textiles

Good curtains work wonders against street noise coming through windows. Thicken the material between the room and the noise with lined curtains, window dressing made from bulky fabric like velvet, or specialty noise-absorbing drapes (which usually have a thick wool core stitched between the decorative fabric).

Curtains and drapes can not only soften a room's look, but can also have a huge impact on noise reduction, especially if you know your windows are thin. Choose a style that suits your decor taste, such as a venetian blind or soft, classic curtain; or go for a luxe look with velvet or heavy velour drapes. 

Aside from the floors and windows, think of creative ways to incorporate beautiful fabrics into the rest of your home. Consider a printed, decorative rug hung on the wall, or maybe canvas paintings that you’d like to mix and match with your room vibes.

Use furniture smartly to reduce noise

Furniture also works as a natural insulator, and strategically placing chairs and couches can definitely soften the effects of outdoor noise. Consider building a tall bookshelf for the wall you share with your neighbour as books, clothing, towels, linens and various other dense materials make for excellent sound transfers.

The idea is to add mass to the partition. Massive materials and objects resist vibration and thereby reduce sound transmission. Make sure the edges of the built-in fit snugly to the walls, floor, and ceiling so there are no air gaps, another avenue for sound. 

Also, opt for a fully-stuffed sofa over a formal or plain model, as anything overstuffed and cushy will absorb that incoming noise. Couches, lounge chairs, and wall partitions can all have an impact on the acoustics of a space—especially high backed couches that essentially act as a room divider. 

Consider using white noise or noise cancelling headphones

A relatively new way to fight unwanted sound is by masking it with white noise. A white noise system uses soft sounds like that of moving air to cover up annoying noise nearby. Popular in commercial use and among new parents, white noise systems can turn a bustling office into a quiet workspace or keep a fussing baby sleeping longer. There are white noise machines and free smartphone apps that you can try. 

You may also try, using a pair of high quality noise cancelling headphones. Some quality brands even boast 100% noise reduction using microphones and special processing to create an opposite sound wave than the one headed for your eardrum.

Plants, Plants and More Plants

Well-placed plants have proven effective in reducing noise levels in an open office setting. The larger the plant means the bigger the impact, not to mention the obvious aesthetic benefits and overall impact on air quality. Not only ideal for sound reduction, live walls and green walls (as shown below) are also increasing in popularity in commercial design.

Bottom Line

While it is difficult to have a completely quiet space, your indoor environments and its inhabitants, thrive off with a better balance of noise reducing solutions that make sense for your particular scenario.

Acoustic struggles can be solved with good space design taking into account reverberation times, sound barriers and sound-reducing surfaces. Materials affect how sound is carried through a space. Absorptive surfaces such as wall panels, plant walls, ceiling baffles, partitions and carpeting help to reduce unwanted noise. Clever furniture choices such as acoustic soft seating, high backed chairs and enclosed rooms are ways to manage  noise problems creatively and effectively.

Creating task-based or functional spaces, promoting appropriate noise etiquette and the use of sound masking systems can also help enhance the acoustic environment. Adding white sound to a space can make the space quieter. This may sound counter-intuitive but adding background noise with sound masking will reduce distractions.

Keep in mind that humans spend 90 percent of their time inside buildings, which is why we need to make them support our health and wellbeing.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published