Dozens, if not hundreds, of studies have demonstrated the negative impact noise has on occupants. Yet, even with advances in materials and technology, noise continues to be a major challenge to designing today’s interior environments.

Perhaps the solution lies deeper than controlling for noise. It may have to do with how we respond emotionally to the sounds around us.

Much of the controversy concerning noise in interior environments has followed from the widespread adoption of open-plan and active space layouts. These environments are designed in large part to encourage and facilitate human interaction, both formal and informal. In the workplace and in educational spaces, that intensified interaction can create problems for others engaged in solitary work. In healthcare facilities, it can disrupt patient rest.

These issues are well-known but finding a balance between increased interaction and minimizing the disturbance it creates remains elusive. A study of more than 500 recently produced workplace change projects conducted by workplace design consultancy Leesman found, “noise levels’ remain a widespread and highly problematic issue, with a catastrophic satisfaction score of 33.4% across all new workplaces, with one in four scoring below 25% satisfaction.” The only feature that scored lower in satisfaction was an employing walking past one’s workstation.

One of the key differences in level of satisfaction with ambient noise identified in the Leesman study was the level of complexity of one’s work.

Similarly, researchers from the School of Architecture at Huaqiao University in China who compared two open-plan workplace environments — one for administrative staff and one for researchers — found that although the acoustic environmental quality was better in the researchers’ workspace, their level of satisfaction with the acoustic environment was lower than that of the administrative assistants. The researchers conclude, “These findings reveal occupants' perception and IEQ demands can be different.”

A subjective evaluation of the impact of the acoustic environment on occupants conducted by researchers from the School of Architecture at Tianjin University in China helps to shed light on why these differences occur. They fielded a questionnaire to people attending one of eight large-scale interior environments (train stations, convention centers, sports facilities) to try to determine what was their feeling about the acoustic environment and what effects it had on them.

From their analysis of the responses to the questionnaire, the researchers identified three classes of acoustical stimuli that produced negative or uncomfortable feelings: those that had an emotional effect (e.g., irritating, anxious, sad), those that influenced attention or thinking ability (e.g., distracting, inability to concentrate, distortion of speech comprehension), and those that affected behavior (e.g. difficult to have a conversation, discomfort, eager to leave noisy space vs. eager to remain in quiet space). They conclude, “Through detailed analysis, results showed that there were significant differences in the acoustic environment on people’s emotion.”

Context also made a difference. When a space has a special function that is intended for crowds and high levels of emotional interaction, users are more accepting of the resultant noise.

Occupants in sports facilities, for example, responded positively to crowd noise whereas those in convention centers and train stations did not. This helps to explain why persons engaged in social activities in open-plan spaces are less likely to be aware of or negatively impacted by ambient noise than those performing solitary tasks.

Unwanted noise and lack of privacy are among the leading causes of poor productivity. These studies indicate that it is not only the level and type of noise that can have a negative impact on occupants, but also its emotional affect and the occupant’s expectation of the desired level of environmental quality. Spaces should be designed to isolate individuals from noise that is not only distracting but also potentially distressing.