Image: Office building
U.S. Department of Energy
In one building in Denver, electronic speakers were installed in a ventilation system to create some sound "masking" to the work space.
updated 4/14/2010 1:26:07 PM ET 2010-04-14T17:26:07

A new look at some of the greenest workplaces has found that they can be too quiet for comfort.

Most buildings have mechanical noises that provide background sounds, which, among other things, give people a sense of privacy when they are talking. But some of the newer, most environmentally smart buildings are just too quiet for that.

"Generally speaking, overall their occupants are more satisfied," said Kevin Powell of the United States government's General Services Administration. Powell looked at 20 federal buildings that had been certified as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) buildings. "The one place that the buildings don't look as good is in terms of acoustics."

The same new designs and materials that help make the LEED buildings more energy efficient, less polluting and more productive spaces in many ways have created unintended acoustical consequences, Powell explained.

"What we found on the top level is that these contemporary workplaces are just very quiet," said Powell, who is scheduled to present his study at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Baltimore on April 19. "The mechanical systems are very, very quiet."

Add to that the fact that modern workplaces have no clacking typewriters, fewer hugging photocopiers and less noisy office equipment in general, and you end up with a lots of silence.

"The acoustics tend to be a mixed bag," said Powell. The study was based on a much larger study of workspaces undertaken by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley.

In one building in Denver, electronic speakers were installed in a ventilation system to create some sound "masking" to the workspace.

"In places where we put in sound masking, we find significantly higher satisfaction," Powell said. That said, it's not an easy thing to get permission to install. "It's extraordinarily counter-intuitive, and it's a hard sell to ask people to spend money on it."

What's really needed, Powell told Discovery News, are some industry standards for acoustics.

Oddly enough, there is an almost 40-year-old law on the books called the Noise Abatement and Control Act, which ought to help, says David Sykes who works on acoustics issues for the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Unfortunately, that law has never been enforced because, for political reasons, the folks who would enforce it as a noise unit of the Environmental Protection Agency have never been funded.

"What that means is the issue (of noise in green buildings) fell of the table," said Sykes.

The only two areas where noise standards have been able to get a foothold, said Sykes, is in schools and health care settings. And that's because there is ample science backing up the benefits of quiet.

"(Powell) is just pointing out that that need be moved over to green buildings," Sykes said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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