Creating acoustical equity

Understanding acoustical equity

A simplified model showing how sound propagates as it moves away from a source, across—or, rather, throughout—a space. Each notch along the horizontal axis represents 0.3 m (1 ft), with ‘0’ marking the origin of the noise. Photo courtesy KR Moeller Associates Ltd.

One can appraise this situation using the basic dictionary definition of “equity” (i.e. fairness or justice in the way people are treated) and conclude the occupants do not have acoustical equity simply by virtue of the fact they do not enjoy equal levels of speech privacy, or even perceived privacy. However, there is more to the concept of equity.

According to conversations occurring in philanthropic circles, equity is also “about each of us getting what we need to survive or succeed—access to opportunity, networks,  resources, and supports—based on where we are and where we want to go. Nonet Sykes, director of race equity and inclusion at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, thinks of it as each of us reaching our full potential.” Since design impacts one’s well-being and level of functioning, it is one of the factors in life that—in the words of built environment strategist Esther Greenhouse—has the “power to disable or enable.” Greenhouse maintains if there is a “poor fit between a person and their environment, the environment acts as a stressor, pressing down on their abilities, pushing them to an artificially low level of functioning.”

A simplified model showing how masking reduces the distance over which the noise shown in Figure 3 can be heard. The effect is noticeable in terms of where the propagating signal reaches and falls below the level of masking sound (grey shaded area). Photo courtesy KR Moeller Associates Ltd.

The need to offer a supportive environment highlights the importance of providing beneficial acoustical conditions throughout the workplace. While occupants can be impacted by acoustical design in myriad ways, it is important to continue with the example of speech privacy. Some might consider it a niche application only relevant to particular offices (e.g. law firms), healthcare, and military environments, but surveys such as those conducted by the CBE show lack of speech privacy is the top workplace complaint, indicating it is a broadly applicable concern.3 Further, this deficiency is not only relevant to occupants of private offices, but to those working within open plans. Although individuals within the latter group are more likely to characterize lowering speech intelligibility as “reducing distractions” rather than “improving speech privacy4 taking measures to achieve this goal means they will have an easier time concentrating on tasks, make fewer errors, and suffer less stress and fatigue.

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