Noise matters. It affects our mental and physical health, it impacts upon our quality of life and it has a profound effect on the enjoyment of our homes. As a result of the current health crisis, we are spending more time than ever indoors, bringing into sharp focus the importance of having high quality homes. In many cases, poor acoustics will be adding to physical and mental discomfort in these already challenging times. Studies have shown that exposure to unwanted noise can contribute to sleep disturbance, hypertension, and an increased risk of diabetes, dementia, stroke and heart disease. The World Health Organisation has found that at least one million healthy life-years are lost every year in western Europe due to environmental noise.
Worryingly, there is mounting evidence that unwanted noise is becoming an issue for more and more people. As the number of us who live in cities grows, and as mixed-use developments become more common, our ability to shut out unwanted noise is becoming ever more important.
Yet noise is often treated as the poor relation when compared to other issues of health and wellbeing in buildings. That is why I was so pleased to be asked to contribute a chapter on noise pollution to the UKGBC’s latest ‘policy playbook’. I – and my colleagues at ROCKWOOL – believe that tackling environmental noise is vital to ensuring that we are building homes that people can love living in. With the right policies in place and the right standards enforced, we can make unwanted noise a thing of the past, even as more people move to the busiest parts of our cities.
The key is considering noise from the outset of any development. Considering the acoustic environment when designing a home can be more cost effective than mitigating for the impact of noise after the planning application has gone in. Through good design, developers can review and design out risk of noise intrusion prior to planning submission.
This isn’t complicated – ensuring effective noise mitigation in residential developments will often come down to design decisions on simple things such as layout or using the right materials. As with overheating, early consideration keeps project team and build design costs down, whilst not making provision early in the process can increase costs and risks. As the National Planning Policy Framework states “Good design is a key aspect of sustainable development, creates better places in which to live and work and helps make development acceptable to communities. Being clear about design expectations, and how these will be tested, is essential for achieving this.” Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to preventing noise pollution.
And it’s not just more cost-effective for developers to think about noise from the outset. The cost to Local Authorities of dealing with noise complaints is significant. A 2012 UK Government report examined the cost of dealing with noise complaints, both in terms of time and cost. They found that the average incident costs an authority 4-7 hours and £180-£360 to deal with, with the most onerous scenario up to 135 hours and over £6,000. A badly designed development, that doesn’t factor in noise abatement in from the beginning, can end up costing a Local Authority tens of thousands of pounds in complaints handling.
So whether you are a planner or a developer, please don’t forget to think about noise from the earliest stage of any development. It matters to the people who will live there. It impacts on their health and their happiness. And it impacts on your bottom line too. Fixing a problem costs you more than avoiding it in the first place. Better to consider noise in your layouts and your material choices than to have your residents making a noise about it further down the line.