Architects Need to Start Designing For the Ears


In an excellent TED Talk, sound guru Julian Treasure poses the rhetorical question: “do architects have ears?”.

As demonstrated by the many examples he conveys in his talk, architects too often don’t use their ears when they design buildings. They over-emphasize the visual experience, while negative consequences due to the resulting poor acoustics with high noise levels are severe on a range of different levels.

Not just our overall quality of life is negatively affected but also our health, our social behavior and productivity. The sound that surrounds us affects us physiologically, psychologically, cognitively and behaviorally; be it consciously or sub-consciously.

Julian Treasure reports on the state of acoustics in some key areas that involve us all.

The New England Journal of Medicine described hospital noise levels as “pandemonium!”. Noise levels in hospitals and healthcare facilities have in fact doubled since 1972. This produces two main problems. Firstly, patients have trouble sleeping due to stressful noise, which negatively affects their recovery. Secondly, noise distractions substantially increase the risk of hospital staff making errors.

Due to poorly designed classroom environments, students may miss 50 percent of what their teachers say. Besides being unable to hear what is being said, the student behavior and study results are negatively impacted by noise.

Also teachers are suffering from the noise they are exposed to. Julian Treasure referred to a German study that found the average noise level in classrooms to be 65 decibels. A level that was found to affect the teachers’ heartrate. 65 dB is seen as the threshold for possible noise-induced risk of heart attack. “Teachers are losing significant life expectancy by teaching in noisy environments like that day after day”, Julian emphasized.

Furthermore, he cited that substandard classrooms can be improved with sound-absorbing materials and other types of acoustic treatment for around GBP 2,500 per classroom.

According to the World Health Organization, a quarter of Europe’s population experience sleeping problems due to noise in urban areas.
“We have urban planners. Where are the urban sound planners? I don’t know one in the world. The opportunity is there to transform the experience in our cities”, Julian Treasure said in his TED Talk.

Also in this area, Julian calls for not just office planners, but office sound planners. He exemplifies with a few very common office mishaps. Placing teams who thrive in noise next to teams who need quiet to do their jobs. And companies spending almost all their budget on a big screen in the conference room, resulting in the placement of one tiny microphone in the middle of a table for 30 people. Being able to clearly see each other, but not hearing what is being said obviously lacks value.

Julian Treasure ended his excellent talk by stressing that architects must start paying more attention to the ‘invisible architecture’ of sound.

“It’s about designing, not appearance, but experience, so that we have spaces that sound as good as they look, that are fit for purpose, that improve our quality of life, our health and well being, our social behavior and our productivity. It’s time to start designing for the ears.”

If you are an architect reading this, what’s your take on the state of the invisible architecture of sound? 

Quiet Cars - An Introductory Guide to a Quieter Ride (eBook and online community)
  • It would be very interesting to hear stories about architectural projects that were successful in terms of carefully designing the ‘invisible architecture’ of sound and acoustics. Please, share.