22 Feb 2022

Prioritizing acoustics is important when creating and maintaining sustainable, high-performance buildings

What's the first thing you think of when you hear the phrase "indoor environmental quality" (also abbreviated IEQ)? Most people are familiar with indoor air quality (IAQ), which focuses on clean air and good ventilation; IEQ includes those factors, as well as temperature control, daylighting, and lighting quality. But beyond those factors, there is still one more important sense that's often not included, which is the acoustics, even though acoustic quality and comfort has a significant impact on our work or school performance, stress levels, and wellness.

Why does acoustic comfort and performance get such limited attention? One reason is because its relationship to other aspects of sustainability is tenuous. Ventilation, temperature, and lighting are all directly related to energy performance and sustainability. When we talk about acoustics, its direct correlation is a little less clear. Some common notions are that improved acoustics are achieved with energy efficient mechanical equipment, which usually generates quieter sound levels, and that high-performance windows may limit exterior sound transmission, again providing an acoustic benefit. LEED first introduced an acoustic comfort credit in the 2009 version, and even now, acoustics is limited to one prerequisite (applicable only to schools) and a credit worth one point. The WELL Building standard more directly addresses acoustics in the Sound Concept area, with one precondition and up to 18 points available.

This does not mean that acoustic comfort is not important. Optimized acoustic conditions are critical to improving human performance and supporting health and wellness in buildings, from workplaces, to learning environments, to healthcare and beyond.

Achieving quality acoustics in buildings starts with site selection, and structural and envelope design to control noise and vibration. In the early 1970s, research published by the Environmental Protection Agency's former Office of Noise Abatement and Control determined that outdoor sound levels of 55 A-weighted decibels or lower were essential for protecting "public health and welfare with an adequate margin of safety". The World Health Organization confirmed the 55 dBA goal.

A development site with sound levels of 55 dBA or lower avoids the need to mitigate excessive noise and allows inclusion of outdoor amenity spaces for recreation and relaxation. However, it's not always viable to select a site with ideal acoustic conditions, because affordable, developable land is typically found in areas where roads, railways, airports, or industry contribute to excessive noise. While site development is possible in these areas, particular consideration must be given to building envelope design and detailing, window system selection, and structural isolation.

For these sites with louder noise exposure, that consideration begins with an initial site assessment of the ambient noise and vibration, which is necessary to identify and integrate cost-effective sound isolation strategies. High-performance building programs are increasingly recognizing that design enhancements like implementing practical acoustic upgrades that complement energy efficiency strategies help to improve indoor environments and make buildings comfortable and supportive of their programmatic function.

This is just one reason that acoustics should be prioritized when creating and maintaining sustainable, high-performance buildings. Optimized acoustic conditions help buildings perform as intended for the people and programs they support. Just as with good lighting, acoustic comfort is fundamental to IEQ and sustainability in order to afford occupants the most supportive environment for their well-being.

Learn how Intertek's Acoustical Consulting and Performance Testing capabilities can help assess your projects, building products and systems: https://www.intertek.com/building/building-sciences-acoustics-technology/


Alan Scott,
Senior Consultant


Alan Scott, FAIA, LEED Fellow, LEED AP BD+C, O+M, WELL AP, CEM, is an architect with more than 30 years of experience in sustainable building design. He is a Senior Consultant with Intertek Building Science Solutions in Portland, OR.


Jeffrey Fullerton,
Department Manager


Jeffrey Fullerton, INCE Bd. Cert., LEED AP BD+C, is an acoustical consultant with 25 years of experience and a Department Manager with Intertek Building Science Solutions in Boston.

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