How Architects & Designers Can Reduce Discomfort Caused by Noise, Temperature & Odors

Architects and interior designers can help reduce the most common sources of distraction, irritation, and physical and mental stress including back and neck pain and osteoarthritis through proper acoustical and ergonomic design, and olfactory and thermal comfort.

Exterior noises can be a source of stress and a risk factor for health. Traffic noise creates a higher risk for hypertension, diabetes, stroke, and heart attack. Spaces should have an average sound pressure level from outside noise intrusion less than 50 dBA. Internal noises from electronics, HVAC systems, mechanical equipment as well as the occupants themselves can also be sources of annoyance, distraction, and decreased productivity. In open offices, the layout should allow for separate loud and quiet zones, and noisy equipment should be separated from occupants. Walls should have the appropriate insulation and construction detailing and doors should have gaskets, sweeps and a non-hollow core to mitigate sound transmission between rooms. The noise produced by reverberation can decrease speech intelligibility and cause additional stress. It’s important to use sound-absorbing materials and design elements. Using sound reducing surfaces is also a must. Footsteps and voices can bounce off surfaces that are hard making them louder. If hard surfaces are used, other design elements such as ceiling baffles or acoustical artwork must be added to offset the problem. Ceiling height also affects indoor noise levels. Yet high ceilings create visual appeal, but to mitigate noise, ceiling clouds, baffles or other design features are needed. A sound masking system can also help. Complete silence can be just as distracting as loud noise.

The temperature of a space can affect mood, performance, and productivity, however temperature preferences are highly individual, and balancing the energy requirements of a building with these varied preferences can be challenging. Thus proper HVAC design is important. Providing occupants the ability to easily relocate workstations is helpful, therefore “hoteling” workstations are recommended over assigned workstations if possible, not only for this reason, but also for light-level and sitting/standing preferences. Ideally, occupants should have access to individual fans (but not space heaters). Radiant temperature systems are preferable to forced air systems because they save floor space, reduce dust transportation, and increase thermal comfort through the separation of temperature controls and outdoor air supply systems. With the use of radiant heating, the mean radiant temperature in a space can be kept lower compared to convective heating, providing the benefit of a slightly higher relative humidity in winter.

Overuse of the same muscles and ligaments strains the body especially for repetitive tasks. The effects of slight visual or physical discomfort compounds which reduces focus and comfort. Occupants should have the ability to either sit or stand while working at a computer. At the seated workstations, the height and depth of chairs and the arms should be adjustable.

Strong odors can also disrupt physical and psychological comfort as well as trigger eye, nose, and throat irritation, nausea, and headaches. Limiting odors is important. All restrooms, janitorial closets, kitchens, cafeterias, and pantries should be separated via negative pressurization, walls with self-closing doors, or vestibules or other intermediate areas.

These are all, of course, just a handful of ways architects and interior designers influence the wellbeing of building occupants. To learn more, please see our other articles.