by Kristen Murphy
Creating a healing environment in the midst of a continually operating workspace seems like a paradox. Fortunately, proper acoustical design can help foster quiet spaces for patients to rest while also protecting their private information. Following are common guidelines for sound control that acoustical professionals consider in healthcare projects:
- Identify the source. To help reduce noise, you first need to identify what’s causing it. Patients are exposed to a broad variety of noise-producing objects and activities, from medical equipment, to activity inside and outside of their rooms, to helipads and ambulances outside.
Once the most critical sources of disturbing noise have been identified, they can be addressed. Some will likely need professional intervention (e.g., mechanical system noise, improved wall constructions, etc.), but others can be solved creatively. Can alarms be reduced? Can doors be shut? Can squeaky cart wheels be replaced?
- Keep noise contained. While it’s important for a patient to understand their caregivers clearly, their neighbors shouldn’t. The walls of a patient’s room should be the first line of defense in keeping surrounding noise out and private information in.
Acoustical consultants work with the rest of the design team to ensure that loud spaces (such as lobbies or mechanical rooms) are isolated from patients to the extent possible, that the construction separating them is robust, and that leaks are minimized. (Think about all of the services passing through the walls at the patients’ beds!) It’s all in the details.
- Use absorptive materials to stop the spread. Although a sleep-deprived patient might love to sequester all noisy objects with thick walls, the demands of monitoring, ease of mobility, and other factors make that impractical.
Once the layout of the space is determined, acoustical consultants ensure that acoustically absorptive treatments are applied in key places to help keep unwanted sound from travelling. Absorptive materials also reduce overall din and improve the ability to understand speech.
Common products are fabric-wrapped wall panels and acoustical ceiling tiles. There are several cleanable and low-VOC products available to help ensure healthy environments.
- Fight sound with sound. Although this may seem counterintuitive, not all sound is noise. Spaces without a comfortable amount of neutral background noise can make inhabitants feel uneasy by sounding “too quiet,” and also make disturbing noises or private information easier to hear.
Pleasant, beneficial background sound can come from a carefully balanced air-handling system or even an electronic sound-masking system that uses groups of small loudspeakers to generate background sound. When considering this type of electronic system, it’s important to install the system in such a way as to cover up noise disturbing to patients while also allowing care staff to respond to emergencies.
These guidelines aren’t just good design practices, they are often necessary to meet privacy regulations such as those required by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Further, they are necessary to assure positive outcomes in patient evaluations used to influence the allocation of federal funding for hospitals under the Affordable Care Act.
Projects that consider acoustics early in the design process tend to get the most well-integrated solutions; when it’s left as an afterthought, the acoustical conditions are rarely as successful. Hospitals are complex facilities with many demands, and the process of their development involves a bevy of designers, engineers, consultants, project managers, and construction professionals. It is the role of the acoustical consultant to not only advocate for the acoustical environment most conducive to healing and a safe, comfortable, and healthy workplace, but also to help coordinate and integrate the acoustical design into the broader architectural context.
Kristen Murphy, LEED AP BD+C, is a consultant in architectural acoustics at Acentech in Cambridge, Mass.