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Episode 10 – Acoustics and Health

Discover how you can green your life by building a knowledge base of current sustainable and eco-savvy trends. This series will delve into hot topics, current standards and practices, ways to design better spaces and specify materials that benefit not only us, as consumers, but the world as a whole. Members of CaraGreen, a sustainable materials distributor, and other industry leaders weigh in throughout the series. This is Build Green live Green.

In this episode we will talk about acoustics and health, how these things go together in ways that you might not think. We are here today with Jessica McNaughton and Kim Loftis of CaraGreen, our show's producer and sustainability think-tank. 

JESSICA: Hi this is Jessica.

KIM: And this is Kim.

JESSICA: We're here with Build Green Live Green and our next topic which is acoustics and health, two things that don't necessarily go together automatically in your mind.

KIM: Right yeah. But they really do go hand-in-hand. The green building movement has kind of had a shift where you're not thinking about, necessarily, all the systems, but you're thinking more about occupant health. So that things really go together especially for acoustics and we'll talk about why acoustics is related to help from a stress-level perspective, from a concentrations perspective and how that affects us.

JESSICA: So, what you mentioned earlier was really more about building standards. So, over the last you know 10 to 12 years, LEED is the building standard that a lot of people have designed to and, you know, it focuses on energy and water and, you know, making sure that the building is very energy-efficient and uses very little water and things like that. And, as we covered in our prior podcasts on WELL Building and the Living Building Challenge, new building standards are focused on having productive, healthy people inside. And acoustics is not just about noise and noisiness. It’s about human comfort, and when the sound level is pleasant, people are more comfortable, and people are healthier and they're more productive.

KIM: And I think a lot of what people will think about when they hear that is noise from the outside coming into their space. So, today we're actually going to be talking more about the noise within a single space. Some examples that we can all relate to are like noisy restaurants and being comfortable in those spaces or in our work environments, where we maybe hear our co-workers that talk really loudly on the phone and being able to be productive in those spaces and feel comfortable because you can get things done or you're, you know, not distracted. So, that's a really big focus for building standards moving forward.

JESSICA: Right, so, I think we've done a good job of explaining how, you know, acoustics can affect your health and health, just think again about your productivity at work, your stress levels, things like that. When I'm in my office and I hear the heavy metal out in the warehouse, I mean, that does pick up my stress level and I will go out and say, “turn it down,” you know. But those are the kind of acoustics we're talking about, you know, controlling here, because they do impact everything you do, whether you enjoy a little bit of sound in the background, you kind of need that base level of sound, which some people do, or if you operate in, you know, dead silence. I mean, you know, everything varies a little bit for people, what they're used to. But there are basic acoustic design techniques that create a base level of comfort. And we should talk a little bit about what some of those are and, you know, you're a designer, you know how design has changed. Why are acoustics such an issue in offices, restaurants, social spaces now, more so than they used to be a decade ago?

KIM: Well, everything has really shifted to open-plan design. So, think about an office space- its way more industrial. A lot of places like the concrete floors, big open windows, open ceilings, so, all the acoustics are affected by that because you have all these hard materials, so, the sound is just bouncing around off of everything instead of having soft surfaces. So, not only is it the materials in those spaces, but it's also the way it's laid out. So, it used to be where everybody would have their own office, you were in your own little room. Now you have this open office plan where everybody is sitting at an open desk.

JESSICA: Maybe a fabric panel, maybe a fabric wrapped panel between the two of them.

KIM: It kind of went from offices to cubicles, and now it's gone from cubicles to desks, and sometimes, like you said, they have those partitions between them. But a lot of times they don't because it really breaks up that space more. So, these spaces look very beautiful, but they are hard to work in because there's no breaks between the spaces to create acoustic comfort.

JESSICA: Carpet is out unless you're Sandy.

KIM: Carpet is definitely out, yeah. Yeah, carpet has come a long way. I think that carpet kind of looked a little dated for a long time, but there's some great companies out there now that create some really modern style, so I think that it's coming back in some ways, like in our conference room, we use carpet tiles to create an area rug. So, we're using carpet in kind of an area. It still has the cool concrete floor underneath it, but there's different ways that you can incorporate soft materials.

JESSICA: Right, and the open design that you're talking about, or open office, is that kind of floor plan, it's largely that hard concrete floor. So, acoustics used to be achieved by having a drop ceiling, Armstrong ceiling tiles, and carpet. And now, in the absence of those two things, we have to look for other materials that can address noise bouncing around in that room. Especially when we're talking about productivity, employees, healthcare has a lot of hard surfaces as well, conference rooms, as you mentioned, too. They are designing these spaces and they're beautiful. You can't compromise that beauty to hang a gray fabric-wrapped fiberglass panel from the ceiling. It just doesn't look right. So, this is really the entre for some of these materials, like Kirei EchoPanel and other acoustic treatments that are beautiful, have shapes and designs, are really decorative to kind of help, you know, do some of this sound control.

KIM: Yeah, I think that, you know, we kind of have this traditional design. We had these traditional solutions, like the fabric-wrapped panels that you mentioned that some of the other materials. So, now the design has shifted, so, the solutions have to shift as well. So, a lot of the options that you see out there are beautiful- they fit into these spaces really well, they don't look like an afterthought. So, you can either design them into your space as you're going through the project or you can actually implement them after the fact if you realize that you have a noise issue.

JESSICA: I think that's an important distinction that you make there. There’s not a lot of design that can be remedial. It’s really nice to work with materials that you know are solving a problem.

KIM: And the fact that they're beautiful, I was in a space recently that was this huge cafeteria space and had these beautiful vaulted ceilings and big, large glass windows. It was hardwood floors, but still a hard material and obviously there's a lot of sound bouncing around in there, because there's people talking, there's dishes being shuffled around, and they literally had the ceiling tile, like the Armstrong-style ceiling tiles, just glued to the ceiling in that beautiful vaulted space. It made me so sad. So, we've really come a long way to having solutions out there that fit into a number of different style of projects. We talked about office design a lot, but this goes for a restaurant design, you mentioned healthcare. Schools, yeah, we've actually done a couple of school projects with the Kirei EchoPanel material, they have turned out really cool. I mean people have just love these products as an added design element.

JESSICA: A lot of those images are on our website in the acoustic section. I think it's important to make a distinction here, too, between the types of sound. So, if you're sitting in a room and someone's hammering in the room next door, that is a different kind of sound than, you know, big-mouth Janie talking on her phone, you know, in the cubicle next to you. Those two types of sound have to be controlled in different ways. Prior to CaraGreen, I worked at a company that dealt with the other side of this- the sound that traveled through walls and there's two types of sound control. One is STC, which is sound transmission class, and that is the ability of a structure to stop sound from going in between walls. That’s the STC. And then the NRC is the noise reduction coefficient, and that's the ability of the material within the room that you're in to reduce the sound bouncing around in that room or absorb it. So, the higher a products NRC, the more sound it can absorb. For the purposes of what we're talking about, acoustics and health, we’re talking about NRC products that address NRC. STC is more difficult because, if I'm in my office and you know the office next to me is, you know, Joe's Truck Building, I don't have control over that. So, NRC is easier to control your own space. STC, you may be dealing with another occupant and it can be harder. So, for the purposes of what we're talking about with Kirei EchoPanel and health, it's when you are in a contained space and able to control a noise that's traveling around within it or the NRC.

KIM: And STC as well, that is also something that HAS to be done during the design phase. We have had people contact us and say, “I've got this issue in my bathroom and I can hear, you know, so and so, every time they flush the toilet.” That is a wall assembly issue. So, if you're looking to solve or thinking about those sorts of issues, it needs to be addressed in the design phase.

JESSICA: And there's a great company, PABCO Gypsum, actually has a product called QuietRock. Even after the fact, you can address some STC issues, but the problem with sound in between rooms is it’s often structure-bound. And structure-bound sound means that something's vibrating that pipe and that pipe’s touching, maybe, a joist, which is then touching your two by fours. So structure-borne sound, you can't get rid of it. It’s physically in the structure.

KIM: You are going to have rip that apart and figure out exactly what’s causing it, which is going to cost a lot of money.

JESSICA: I mean there's techniques that can be effective, but nothing that can completely eliminate it. NRC is much easier. You basically need more surface area of soft materials. So, something like Kirei EchoPanel, where you can get surface area either in a panel or in a 3D-structure like the EchoStars. You know, the more surface area you create of a soft material, the more you can reduce the noise.

KIM: We've actually had to consider some of these things while we're recording our podcast, because we don't want to be in a hard room where we get an echo, because the feedback is not going to sound good in our podcast. So, we need to be in a room that has nice soft materials and think about recording studios, as well. They basically have padded walls, so that the sound sounds good.

JESSICA: I mean I remember our first podcast, we had the physics club from NC State next to us you know scribbling with markers, some 30-page algorithm on a whiteboard talking back and forth and we had to move because of it. We just gave some personal examples, like how we recorded the podcast, but even thinking about our office, we just moved into a giant warehouse. We built it out. We didn't want carpet, you know we wanted to come up with ways to have acoustic treatments and do the best thing and, you know, we've had to get creative with those.

KIM: Yes, so, in our conference room we have the concrete floor, which is kind of the standard of a warehouse. But we did an area rug in there to kind of mitigate some of that sound and we also have other soft surfaces in there. We made a point to get soft conference room chairs. We’re going to be hanging some Kirei EchoClouds in that space, as well, to help with sound.

JESSICA: Over the conference room table and those are cool. They’re soft panels, they're in cloud shapes and they hang at different levels and different, you know, size circles and they're going to create, like, basically a sky in our conference room.

KIM: Yeah, and the cool thing about these products too, we talked a little bit about how many options there are, is that you can customize them. So Kirei will actually do custom cutouts, they'll do custom printing.

JESSICA: So, like your logo, or if there's some shape, like, if you're the American Red Cross and get a plus shape on your…

KIM: Exactly, yeah. So, there's so many possibilities in this category right now. So, I think that it's really expanding the way that designers can design and the cool thing, as well, is that there's some sustainable options out there. So, we've mentioned Kirei quite a few times, that’s one of the acoustic materials that we sell, and they are made of 60% recycled PET.

JESSICA: Which is plastic. PET plastic bottles.

KIM: Yeah, so, it goes through, like, a felting process and it makes it nice and soft. So, they recycle all those fibers, form them into panels, and then those panels come in lots of different shapes, colors, sizes and then they can be customized. They come in systems with the hardware included. So, there's a lot of design solutions out there.

JESSICA: Well, for our listeners that can’t sort of touch or feel this, it’s important to note that a lot of the acoustic solutions out there are felt, they do feel like felt, whereas the EchoPanel actually has a more rigid feel. So, those plastic fibers have been broken down and then panelized into this rigid panel. So, it doesn't feel soft and fuzzy like something that's going to have a lot of issues cleaning it, it’s more rigid, so you can do more with it, because it's not soft and it doesn't need to be supported additionally. One of the nice things about acoustics and health for designers is that there are so many great heard services that they're working with. So, you know, they're working with PaperStone and IceStone or the sintered stone like the Lapitec or Durat, and they've got these great beautiful surface materials they're working with. But then they can complement it with something with an acoustic treatment, so you can use these hard surfaces but also have this product that's helping them perform as well. So, you can accomplish all of that you know at the same time.

KIM: Yeah, so, I think design teams are really starting to think about acoustics from the get-go. They’re kind of designing it into their space as far as the build layouts, maybe the furniture selection, but then they're also able to look at these solutions and come up with some really cool design ideas for the ceiling, for the walls, for desk partitions and things like that that really make their spaces still have the feel and the look that they want, but can also make them really unique.

JESSICA: Right, yeah, so, I mean we've talked a lot about Kirei EchoPanel, I think that’s because that's the one that we know the most, there are other acoustic products out there. The EchoPanel, you know, everything from the four by eight sheets to the peel and stick tiles, so it's nice that you can design your own thing. And Kirei also has these value-engineering paths, so if you really like the way something is designed but, you know, it's not quite within your budget, there's so many paths to get to what you need. So, you don't have to give up all acoustic control because it doesn't meet your budget, there’s always a way to do a subset of it and still get the advantage. So, that makes it such a problem-solver that I think our salespeople really love working with it because they love to provide the solution and EchoPanel really lets them do that. There’s other products too. It's not just, you know, soft panels that absorb sound, multi-level panels can also absorb sound because wavelengths travel at different frequencies and different depths of material can break up those frequencies and dissipate that sound. So, Plyboo has a sound control line that has holes drilled which trap certain frequencies, it’s really neat. So, Plyboo bamboo panels are a great option. What’s the reclaimed wood?

KIM: WonderWall. Yeah, WonderWall, their products are not only beautiful, but they do provide this kind of service as well. Because they're reclaimed, they have all these little knots and holes in them and different levels like, you mentioned. So, it really does defuse the sound and it is a lot softer than some of the other more traditional building materials that you may see, so, if you have a particularly loud area, maybe you use it on an accent wall. Maybe you use it as a kind of partition wall in the middle of your space to break up that sound.

JESSICA: Even things like reSAWN Timber, which are the wood with the brushed- back, the charred timber, those as well when used in a wall application.

KIM: Yeah, and there's a lot of different applications for those too. When you're talking about the Plyboo panels, we've seen people actually install those, maybe set off the wall a little bit, so there's an air gap between them, so there's even more room for the sound waves to bounce around and diffuse. We’ve also seen people put, like, a felt backer behind those panels, which is, again, an even softer material, which is going to absorb some of that sound. So, there's ways that you can even boost the acoustic performance of acoustic products.

JESSICA: Right, and so, Kirei EchoPanel, you know, keeping it off the wall, again. I talked about that structural attachment of things. Air is a great insulator. So, having that air gap is really helpful and it does bump up the performance. Since we're talking about walls, we should talk about the wall cavity. Fiberglass is not a good insulator. It is the de facto standard for insulation and it's what everyone uses, but there are much better products- either denser products or products with fibers that are better designed to actually have acoustic performance. UltraTouch denim insulation is denser, you can look at it and see how much denser it is. Fiberglass, you can see all those air gaps and the material sounds just going to blow right through that, where the UltraTouch is much denser and you can see its STC performance. If you want to get an STC number, you have to put your product in a wall assembly and have it tested to get that performance. So that's where you'll see STC numbers and those STC reports. But UltraTouch performs better, and then, the wool.

KIM: Yes, Havelock Wool. I actually just put some Havelock in my house. Which I'm super excited about.

JESSICA: I hope you got a deal on it.

KIM: I did, I know somebody. Their name is CaraGreen. I put Havelock in my house because it's pretty much an ideal fiber for insulation because it can control humidity. For the purposes of our conversation today, it’s really great for acoustics, because it’s similar to UltraTouch where its more dense, the sound isn't going to travel through as easily as it would for fiberglass. So, it was really important for me to put this in my daughter's rooms.

JESSICA: Daughters.

KIM: I know, yeah, one on the way.

JESSICA: We're taking name suggestions on our podcast.

KIM: Yes, I only have one idea so far, so let me know. So, we put it on some of the exterior walls, but then we also put it between the walls of their bedrooms and the main reason for that is because we have a long hallway where our bedrooms are all down at the end. At the other end of that hallway is the kitchen. So, when the kids go to bed, granted one is not here yet, but it can be loud because we've just finished dinner, you know, dinnertime’s over, we're washing dishes. It can be loud in there. So, we wanted to really insulate their rooms and do it in a sustainable way. These products both are fire-rated, but they're not treated with the harsh chemicals that fiberglass is. So, they're great for indoor air quality as well as their acoustic performance. So, excited to have that in my home and a great option for inside the wall cavity.

JESSICA: That’s great. Yeah, so, you know, the NRC that we were talking about before sound, bouncing around, is a little bit different than those insulation options. It’s just nice to know that you can… making a healthy insulation choice is a no-brainer, no matter what, acoustics aside. It just makes sense. So, yeah, I mean, think about your personal life. I went on a girl’s trip, and every single one of those girls uses a white noise generator, like, on their phone or they bring one with them. I was like, I'll get my own room, I can't sleep with that noise going on. But every single one of them had a white noise generator and that's, again, people operate at a certain noise level that gives them comfort. And I think if you can design and make that, make space as a more pleasant place to be and if I could tell you your employee productivity would go up, five percent, ten percent just by having acoustic comfort, I can guarantee you a lot of employers would take that every day of the week, and what about a hospital? What if your patients recover quicker? I mean this acoustics is no longer a, this black box science where no one knows the results. The studies are there that show its important, that’s why it's built into WELL Building, that's why it's part of biophilic design, that's why it's part of the Living Building Challenge. So, it's a known thing now and it's not going away. So, you're going to see more and more people designing with acoustics at the outset or remediating spaces with products like Kirei EchoPanel.

KIM: We talk about, in our biophilic design lunch and learn course, about how mental health is such a huge issue, especially in the US, and we've talked about productivity a little bit. But really, what that relates to is stress and if you have too much stress, that can result in mental health issues. So, it's something that we really need to pay attention to. A stressful issue that I am going up against right now is, it’s not work-related, I mentioned that we're redoing our house. So, we're living in an apartment right now and our downstairs neighbors are pretty much a nightmare and it is very stressful to me because I'm already not sleeping well, because I'm pregnant, and they wake me up in the middle of the night. I mean, I'm constantly like looking to see if the guy’s truck is there because I'm wondering how I'm going to sleep that night and how many times he is going to wake me up from screaming. So, you know these things are really important like when we're thinking about stress levels, overall health and there's, you know, so many different spaces that they apply to and really important for us to think about from the outset, so that we can better our lives and better of people's lives that designers and architects are designing for.

JESSICA: So, if any of our listeners have ideas about you know acoustics or, kind of, creative ways acoustic design has been built into your space, we would love to hear those and comment on our podcast transcript. I think an interesting topic that we should maybe cover next time is some of this co-working, co-living, co-playing type spaces like WeWork and Industrious, because when our office was in Industrious, I loved how they incorporated acoustics. They had those phone booths, they had used the acoustic tiles to kind of mimic their logo in the phone booth and they had these private places that also had acoustic treatments within them. But it really showed how this open office plan, all these natural organic elements, biophilic design and how acoustics was used in that space in a personal way. But with a really communal concept, you know, of these co-working spaces. They really just did a really classy use of acoustics and I think they do a classy use of a lot of things and we should, you know, maybe think about one of our next podcasts covering co-working spaces.

KIM: Yeah, it's kind of like the evolution of the office space.

JESSICA: And the apartment. I mean they're talking about basically almost like turning living spaces into almost more like dorm living for, you know adults, or at least people are like Alyssa, that are on their way to being adults.

KIM: She's our podcast editor.

JESSICA: And resident millennial, one of our resident millennials. All right so that's Build Green Live Green, acoustics and health. We hope that you guys learned a lot today and we are sounding off.

KIM: Thanks for joining us.

For a written manuscript of this episode as well as supporting resources, visit our website at caragreen.com/podcast. Want to know more about a specific industry related topic? Shoot us an email at social@caragreen.com. 

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