The problem of interacting in our noisy world becomes a huge challenge for the hard of hearing due to the number of contributing factors that are involved. Working in the field of Audiology, a common complaint we often hear from our patients is, “I just can’t hear in a restaurant, cocktail party, or group situation.” We know that the acoustical qualities of an environment can have a substantial impact on one’s ability to communicate. Architects, designers, and planners design spaces essentially with the intent of making the final outcome one that is aesthetically pleasing to the viewer, often ignoring a few practical aspects that should be considered.

What consideration is given to the ears and our precious sense of hearing? When it comes to communication, hearing is a major sense that plays a crucial role for us humans. It is a fundamental tool for us.  Every day we converse with many people – from our family and our co-workers, to people we’ve just met. Communication is a significant aspect of creating and maintaining relationships. It is necessary when facilitating social interaction and it begins at a young age and continues throughout our entire lifetime. When a breakdown in communication occurs, our interactive relationships can become strained. It can cause people to become isolated or possibly withdraw from social events. Such communication breakdowns can have a negative effect on one’s overall health. So, here may be a big opportunity to educate the design community and encourage the use of available sound reduction products and methods into their projects?

Public spaces that are poorly designed from an acoustical aspect not only affect our quality of life but also our health, social behavior, and our productivity as well. Many people just do not recognize that sound affects us consciously AND subconsciously within an environment. Designing spaces is not only about appearance but, just as importantly, how that space functions and how people function within that space. Each and every space has its own acoustical qualities which affect how sound behaves. When a sound travels and hits an object, it is either reflected or absorbed.  Reverberations (i.e., echoes) in a sound environment interfere with one’s ability to understand speech. As a result, understanding the standards for reverberation time is an important factor to be considered for effective design. High ceilings and hard surfaces of all kinds – hard flooring, furniture, windows, and walls often amplify echoes. Background noise that comes from heating and air conditioning can make it more difficult to understand speech. Some simple considerations can avoid the creation of a troublesome and uncomfortable communication environment. Implementing factors to reduce noise sources and echoes as well as the use of insulated interiors can certainly help resolve some communication problems, and make it easier for anyone (with or without a hearing loss) to communicate. There are a variety of sound absorbing materials that could be artistically placed to help with the loud sounds.

It is important to ensure that architects and interior designers become informed and educated about providing comfortable surroundings which is essential in providing excellent customer service and care. It would seem that it is time to incorporate a sensitivity to sound that goes beyond the visual aesthetic. There exists a concept of design called “universal design” that is beginning to make its debut. It is defined as “referring to ideas meant to create products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.” Acoustical design is a universal design element that up to now has not been considered as a critical issue when creating a space. However, it is becoming more important that designers spend more time on the acoustic environments of their buildings, making acoustics an integral component of how they design and construct our environments.

With improvements in the practice of modern medicine and gain in life expectancy, it is important for designers to think outside the box and incorporate some of the otherwise ‘invisible’ elements into their layouts. Acoustics should be part of the design process incorporating sound-absorbent materials like dropped acoustic ceilings, curtains, and /or carpet to reduce noise. We all look forward to the day that we can communicate more easily in our restaurants, theatres and other public venues.

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