Turn down the volume

Ben Hancock of Oscar Acoustics explores how housebuilders and developers can prevent noise from ruining occupants’ health, as our cities grow ever larger.

The UK urban population living in cities is set to rise to 92.2 per cent (65.8 million people) by 2030. As our urban areas continue to expand with more people, traffic, construction and industry, noise pollution has become a major concern. Such a concentration of people, building activity and transport hubs will bring noise that, in many cases, is unwanted, yet avoidable.

We’re already living on top of each other (43 per cent of Londoners now live in flats), which comes with problems which will only get worse with increased urbanisation. Unfortunately, people are a major source of noise, and a recent study by Jacksons Fencing found that the noise that infuriates us the most comes from other people around us (56 per cent).

The serious implications of exposure to noise is gaining more international recognition, but the built environment is still catching up. Research from the WHO calculates that noise contributes to the loss of one million years of life a year in Western Europe alone. England’s Chief Medical Officer has already warned of the dangers of unchecked noise pollution. Her latest report put it as the second largest contributor to disease in Europe, after air pollution.

Urbanisation isn’t likely to slow down, so developers need to make sure cities are prepared to handle the inevitable increase in noise pollution that comes with rapid growth, otherwise, we’ll end up building houses that aren’t fit to live in.

Reducing unnecessary noise while improving or maintaining the look of the surrounding space is a challenge for many architects, specifiers and builders. It will therefore be crucial to ensure housing developments are well defended against transport hubs, construction sites and general hubbub that comes with an increased population density.

Noise is often left out of interior design plans due to its lack of visibility. While it’s easy to imagine what a room will look like from the blueprints, it’s far harder to predict what it will sound like. Julian Treasure, founder of consultancy The Sound Agency, argues that ‘invisible architecture’ needs to be taken into consideration. This means designing for the overall experience, not just appearance, of a space. For example, using products which will provide a tolerable soundscape.

The first step towards tackling this issue for housebuilders is to identify the main sources of noise pollution that will affect a new build by analysing the surrounding environment. This could be a traffic junction, transport hub, large public space, recreational buildings, or indeed other houses. Monitoring the average decibel level in the area, at both day and night, will help guide how extensive noise mitigation measures need to be.

Living in a city, it’s inevitable to be surrounded by noise, and some will make it into the home. Interiors need to be designed in a way that is conducive to good acoustics to mitigate the cacophony from outdoors. Cavernous rooms with lots of hard surfaces will lead to long reverberation times, exacerbating any sonic irritation, and while windows bring an open and spacious feel to a room, they offer little insulation against exterior sound. However, this doesn’t mean designing cramped, claustrophobic, dark rooms.

There are a range of methods and products that can ensure a comfortable decibel level. Soundproofing ceilings against noise is a great way to start, especially in today’s packed metropolises, helping avoid any disturbances from upstairs neighbours. Sound passes through ceilings and floors as vibrations, and sound pressure waves generated by footsteps, music or voices in an upper flat penetrate and travel through floorboards, joists and ceilings in the form of vibration and noise. By creating an isolated, floating ceiling using acoustic hangers you will stop the vibration that causes the transfer of unwanted noise from flat to flat.

Moving forward, it is hoped that more architects and developers will take noise into consideration from early on in the planning process. A home is supposed to be a retreat from the chaos of daily life; noise will ruin comfort and eventually cause serious health issues.

With the UK’s population density rapidly increasing, we need to move fast to mitigate noise in all new and existing builds to prevent Britain becoming a sonic battleground.

Ben Hancock is director of Oscar Acoustics