News & Views
30 Nov 2022

Is environmental noise the new passive smoking?
Noise control and architectural acoustics

According to research by the World Health Organization, an estimated one million healthy life years were lost from traffic-related noise in western Europe in a single year.

In this article, Professor Chris Barlow, Head of Research and Development at KP Acoustics Research Labs, outlines the risks of environmental noise exposure and argues architects have a key role to play in designing buildings that can limit the impact of environmental noise.

Environmental noise, distinct from occupational noise, refers to noise that propagates from the outside environment. Common sources of environmental noise include, road, rail and air traffic, building sites and wind turbines. More recently, air conditioning units and air source heat pumps have been added to the mix. Environmental noise is regarded by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a significant public health risk.

Many countries use surveys to assess perceptions of noise among the general population. The last European Quality of Life survey, conducted in 2016-17, revealed that 32 per cent of more than 30,000 survey participants reported problems with noise in the immediate neighbourhood of their home. However, despite these perceptions, most people are unaware of the full extent of the risks.

As highlighted at the outset of this article, it has been estimated that in a single year, approximately one million healthy life years were lost from the effects of traffic-related noise in western Europe alone. Architects can make a significant difference in combatting this problem, but unfortunately, many receive very little training in acoustics.

The risks are greater than you realise

Most of us have lived through a paradigm shift in societal attitudes to passive smoking. A mere two or three decades ago, passive smoking and the health risks it incurred were tolerated even by non-smokers. As more scientific research emerged demonstrating the severity of the risks, a wider attitudinal transformation took place leading to changes in behaviour.

Our position in relation to environmental noise arguably resembles that which we faced with passive smoking in the 1990s. There is a scientific consensus about the risks, but this is yet to fully translate into a wider attitudinal transformation among the general population. If the construction industry could grasp the scale of the risk, that would be a massive step in the right direction, as better building design would make an enormous difference in mitigating the effects of noise exposure.

Environmental noise exposure is generally at a relatively low level and therefore generally not likely to cause hearing loss,. However, environmental noise contributes significantly to other health problems, such as increased stress, sleep deprivation and cardiovascular illness.   Environmental noise is also associated with reduced learning outcomes for school children.

Noise from transport such as rail and road traffic is a leading culprit, but the impact can be exacerbated by poorly insulated or designed buildings. Much like passive smoking, not every individual responds in the same way and the risks might not manifest as problems at the time of the initial noise exposure. However, there is a substantial body of scientific research that allows us to determine specific levels, beyond which the risk increases significantly.

For occupational noise, this research has fed into legal requirements, such as the Control of Noise at Work Regulations (2005), which specify exposure limits. For environmental noise, appropriate levels are often specified in planning guidelines.  The WHO Regional Office for Europe has also developed guidelines and recommendations to protect people from environmental noise, consistent with the European Union’s Environmental Noise Directive.

Sustainable building design

Given the link between environmental noise and poor health outcomes, an argument can be made that sustainable building design includes taking steps to mitigate the risks of environmental noise exposure.  Most people equate sustainability with being carbon neutral, or at least having a reduced carbon footprint. This way of thinking is especially common in building design.

However, if quality of life was understood as a key tenet of a sustainable built environment, we would shift toward building houses that are truly designed for the future. Much of our housing stock is inadequate both thermally and acoustically, with a clear link between the two. Both clients and end users or inhabitants will want effective noise control. Achieving this will become increasingly pressing given the long-term trend toward increasing urbanisation in Western societies.

Architects need to consider acoustics from the design stage. If a building is designed with poor acoustics in the first place it is a lot more expensive to fix retrospectively than designing with good acoustics in mind.  Converting buildings from other uses into accommodation also often leads to significant problems in acoustics as the building is now being used for purposes other than that which it was designed for. A common example is the conversion of office buildings into residential, or the installation of gym equipment in mix-used buildings.

Notwithstanding the above, if architects were able to incorporate greater understanding of acoustics into their work at the design stage, it could lead to more sustainable building design, a reduction in noise exposure for inhabitants, and ultimately, reduced health risks and improved quality of life for us all. This would be beneficial to individuals but would also have a positive outcome at the aggregate level, resulting in improved productivity and reduced health costs to society as a whole. We now see passive smoking not as a necessary part of everyday life but as an unnecessary and unsustainable risk to our health that can be easily avoided. If we are to reach a similar position for environmental noise exposure, the construction industry will play a vital role in helping us get there.

KP Acoustics Research Labs provides a range of CPD accredited, certified and bespoke courses, such as the Institute of Acoustics Diploma in Acoustics and Noise Control. To find out more, visit or contact our team on +44 (0)2382 544 965 |


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