“Def” Design in a Noisy World


Because of hearing loss, I’m fated to live a life filled with mondegreens. So like columnist Jon Carroll, I have decided to enjoy them! I’m still tickled by the image that popped into my head when my husband Mason told me that we had to “do something about the minotaurs in the garden.” (I misheard him – Mason wasn’t talking about mythical creatures like the one at right, but about an overgrowth of  “baby tears”!)

Even though a hearing loss can be profoundly isolating, I have lots of company with it. A  petition filed with the federal Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, which writes access rules that become part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), noted that:

Government health statistics document that more Americans report a hearing loss than any other disability… A recent assessment by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 13% of a representative sample of children between the ages of 6 and 19 had a high-frequency hearing loss and 7% a low-frequency hearing loss of 16 dB or more, a level at which perceiving and understanding words would be affected.

ADA Doesn’t Solve All our Access Problems

The petition cited above, which was started by the parent of a hearing-impaired child and then joined by a consortium of organizations representing hearing-impaired people in 1998, noted that while the ADA requires amplification systems in public buildings to help the hearing-impaired, it doesn’t yet “contain provisions for the acoustical design or performance of spaces within buildings and facilities.” The petition has wound its way through the bureaucracy, and has led to the ANSI/ASA S12.60-2002, Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements and Guidelines for Schools. As of March 2009, that standard is still not part of ADA; it’s a voluntary guideline except where states or school boards have specifically adopted it. The Access Board, however, does have some helpful guidelines for quiet classrooms on the web.

A beautiful hotel on Cannery Row. I left after one night and never went back because of the noise.
A beautiful hotel on Cannery Row. Elegant, romantic - but miserable! We left after one night and never went back because of the noise.

This explains, at least in part, why even well-prepared interior designers and architects can follow the letter of the law and still design rooms that fall far short of meeting the communication needs of a significant number of the people who use them. (Interior designers are educated in issues of access and safety, unlike interior decorators, whose practice doesn’t extend beyond choosing colors, furniture, draperies and wall coverings.)

As an internet search on the terms “beautiful but noisy” and “hotel” will show, noisy environments impact lots of people, not just those with hearing loss.  Many people find noisy, echoing and uninsulated interiors uncomfortable, so when designers of restaurants and hotels fail to consider sound quality, business can suffer as a result. In this post, I have included photos of a hotel and a restaurant I visited but did not return to because I found the audio environment so difficult. When it comes to offices, unaddressed noise can interfere with productivity. Worst of all, exposure to excessive noise is the most common cause of hearing loss – a fact that makes it everybody’s business. Exposure to a noisy subway for just 15 minutes a day, for example, can cause permanent damage to your hearing over time.

Announcing a Blog Series
Devoted to Design for Disability

I have been surprised by the amount of traffic that my “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, the Designer’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad” post has generated. (At this writing, it’s the most popular post on this blog, having received 194 views since its publication a month ago on Feb. 2, 2009. ) Conversation around access issues has has prompted me to start a blog series on “universal design” – which is also called “accessible” or “healthy” design – an area that is my chosen specialty. This first post deals with hearing problems, and later I will be discussing interior design with respect to whole range of disability and communication problems, including:

  • wheel chair access
  • reduced mobility, avoiding falls, difficulty with stairs, chairs and barriers
  • asthma and allergies, how to design rooms to discourage dust mite allergies, mold and mildew
  • decreased vision and how to deal with it
  • social, security and communication needs of those who want to age in place

I encourage readers to comment on these posts; I would like this series to be a discussion rather than a diatribe. (For those of you who have been following my series on flooring, don’t worry. I will continue both the flooring and disability series, alternating with things like handmade furniture, to keep things lively.)

Designers and Disabilities:
A Bit of Soul-Searching Among Professionals

My “Oh Dad” post has provoked some interesting comments from other interior designers, both here on “Living in Comfort and Joy” and in discussion groups elsewhere on the net. Here’s what some of my peers have had to say:

Sean: “The ADA had just been passed when I began as an undergrad and was considered a key component to my education. Students who ignore the ADA do so at their professional peril – especially if they ever want to practice design in a commercial setting. The ADA is not a suggestion; it’s FEDERAL LAW and MUST be addressed… Understanding the ADA, I believe, is one of the FUNDAMENTAL differences that distinguish Interior Designers from Interior Decorators.”

A wonderful, historic and famous restaurant in San Francisco. The food is great and the so is the atmosphere. But I never go there anymore because the noise level makes it impossible to order or converse with my friends.
A wonderful, historic and famous restaurant in San Francisco. The food is great and so is the atmosphere. But I stopped going there because it's so loud!

Laura: “I’m a commercial interior designer – no residential experience, even my own home is a mess – but that last paragraph [about designer’s contrary attitudes toward accessible design] hits the nail on the head in the commercial market as well.”

Design for Disabilities:
It Takes Will as Well as Skill

Sean’s and Laura’s comments are both on the mark. Designing for comfort of those with disabilities demands both knowledge and effort. While the ADA does demand compliance to certain standards of access and communication in public buildings, it doesn’t have much to say about residential interiors; they are more elective for both designer and client. And as Laura notes, isn’t possible to legislate attitude changes or command compassion.

As someone who was an activist after the passage of ADA, I’m happy find my current blog playing a consciousness-raising role within my chosen field now. When I’m anointed Queen of California, I will put forth a  “modest proposal” to the effect that all commercial interior designers are required to go out to dinner wearing ear plugs before accepting a restaurant design commission! I’m sure that the experience of being unable to converse with a waiter (and consequently getting a dinner one does not want!) will be more compelling than anything that could ever be written into the pages of the California building code.

Most people know about seeing eye dogs. If you don't know about hearing dogs, click on the pup. You'll be taken to a heart-warming story about hearing service dogs.

Deaf vs. Hard of Hearing  –
Needs Differ

This post is dedicated to “def” design – that is “good” design – for those who are hearing-impaired. Despite my playing with this homonym, the needs of the hearing-impaired are actually quite different from the needs of the deaf. The biggest difference between the two categories of hearing loss is that hearing-impaired people were able, at a young age, to learn oral speech. That permanently defines the way they interact with the world – and they usually struggle to remain “oral” for the rest of their lives. (I strongly advocate a visit to the website of the League for the Hard of Hearing, which has a wealth of facts about hearing loss and wonderful information on how to help and communicate with a person who has hearing loss.)

The deaf, by contrast, learn to sign rather than speak, and they have built a whole culture around American Sign Language (ASL). Indeed, many of them feel that their culture is threatened by cochlear implants. (Cochlear implants are not a panacea. My aunt Hannah, who has lost nearly all of her hearing, had a cochlear implant that worked. However, the implant broke down and the model she had implanted is no longer manufactured. The newer model does not work for her at all, so she’s back to being profoundly isolated and disabled!)

Aural Characteristics of Classrooms – A Civil Rights Issue!

While it’s very common to lose hearing as we age (as has been the case with Hannah), my own hearing was damaged first in infancy and again during childhood due to high fevers and ear infections. I have about 80 decibels of loss in one ear and 30 in the other. I am not actually “deaf”, and I didn’t get a hearing aid until well into my adulthood. In a well-designed interior, I have 100% speech comprehension. But that leaves me struggling to communicate in noisy restaurants, hotels, airports and classrooms (including the one at University of California Berkeley Extension where I’m taking an evening class that focuses on “accessible design”) decades after the passage of the ADA.

In some respects, I have been lucky. Had I been born deaf or lost more hearing as an infant, I might have been unable acquire to verbal language. I would have lived a very different life. Because the ability to learn spoken language is age-dependent (and research with deaf children has shown that failure to acquire effective language skills by the age of six can’t ever be fully repaired)  the creation of schools that accommodate hearing is truly a civil rights issue. As the ADA petition mentioned earlier put it:

Effective speech reception – understanding, not just hearing – is the primary educational issue for people with auditory disabilities. A Cornell University study published in the journal “Environment and Behavior” indicates that excessive classroom noise impedes the acquisition of language and cognitive skills by all children…

Where classrooms and child care centers do not provide acceptable listening conditions, even amplification will not achieve maximum effect in improving speech communication. Poor acoustics can also compromise the effectiveness of personal hearing aids and devices and limit the usefulness of auxiliary aids and services. Good acoustics can enhance the usefulness of such aids and improve listener reception of unamplified speech, as may occur in group interchange. Because most mild hearing losses in children are not diagnosed, children with such losses (15-25 dB), including those with temporary hearing loss due to otitis media, will not generally be using amplification devices…

The listening abilities of children with hearing impairments, particularly those with mild to moderate hearing loss, are even more affected by poor acoustics than are those of children whose hearing falls within normal ranges. A 1997 study of children with minimal sensorineural hearing loss showed lower scores for basic skills and communications testing and a high rate – 37% – of retention in grade. In addition, these students functioned below normally-hearing children in evaluations of behavior, energy, stress, social support, and self-esteem…

A Few Sound Pointers for “Def” Design

Here are ten pointers that anyone designing a communication-friendly interior should consider:

  1. Echoes interfere with the ability to understand speech; designers need to be aware of standards for reverberation time.
  2. Background noise that comes from heating and air conditioning can make it hard to understand speech.
  3. High ceilings often amplify echos; dropped acoustic ceilings can help reduce noise.
  4. Hard surfaces of all kinds – hard flooring, furniture, windows, walls – cause reverberation that interferes with communication. Every room design should include some sound-absorbent materials.
  5. Lighting can help or hinder the communication of a person who is speech reading (lip reading). The light should be positioned to fall on the face of the speaker, but should not fall into the eyes of the hearing-impaired person. If you live with a hearing-impaired person, you should consider this when positioning lights and conversational seating.
    Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco underwent a major acoustic tune-up in 2000.
    Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco underwent a major acoustic tune-up in 1992. The ceiling has plexiglass panels hanging above the orchestra pit and hangings that look like flags along the side of the hall to direct sound and abate unwanted echoes.

  6. Sight lines are also important to the hearing-impaired. In public buildings, hearing-impaired people may be using broadcast amplifiers that will blocked when sight lines are blocked. (For example, when someone stands or raises their hands in front of another person using an amplifying device, the hearing-impaired person will get a head full of static.) Similarly, the deaf need good sight lines and adequate face lighting to be able to read an ASL interpreter.
  7. Room adjacency is always important in good design. No designer should abut bedrooms without an intermediary closet or soundproofing because of the “cheap motel effect.” But noise from adjacent room can be especially frustrating for those who suffer hearing loss. Placing a poorly sound-proofed air conditioner or washing machine on a wall adjacent to a living room, for example, could seriously impact the resident’s ability to talk to other family members.
  8. Beware of noisy heating, air conditioning and plumbing. If you can’t place machine rooms away from conversational spaces, make sure that the machinery is surrounded by sound-absorbent material.
  9. Improve windows. Windows are often the weakest part of the outer envelope of a building, and they can transmit street, traffic or aircraft noise. Double-paned and well-insulated windows will both reduce noise and improve energy performance.
  10. Rule of thumb for hearing safety: If you have to shout to be heard three feet away, then the noise is too loud and is damaging your hearing. (Sound systems with headphones can produce sound levels as loud as 105 – 110 decibels. Children who listen to this much noise for several hours a day face an inevitable hearing loss.)

While these pointers apply to all kinds of interiors, some places and functions require special consideration. A doctor’s office requires special wall insulation to protect the privacy of patients’ conversations during medical consultations. Classrooms need special attention to prevent reverberation and background noise. And the acoustic design of a symphony hall is specialized indeed!  But even ordinary workplaces can benefit from noise reduction, and the Office Design blog by Space has great tips for reducing noise in offices. (A great directory of resource links for the hearing impaired can be found here.)

Easy, Quick Ways to Help
Those with Hearing Impairments

A Door Harp from Woodsong, an artisan in Israel. These can be ordered over the internet and make lovely gifts.
A door harp made by Pete Isacowitz, who runs Woodsong, in Upper Galilea, Israel. I put one of these on the inside of my front door so I wouldn't be startled by people coming in. Click the harp to visit Woodsong's website.

The pointers listed above are things that you would normally consider in the process of designing or redesigning an interior. What if you’re struggling with hearing issues and can’t undertake a design project? There are quick, simple changes you can make in the environment to improve communication and enhance the comfort and joy of the people who live in it. For example:

  • Pay attention to the position of furniture. Hearing-impaired people need to be able to see what’s coming. (For example, the desk in my office is arranged so that I can see anyone who comes in. That way, I’m not startled.) Also, consider points 5 and 6 above, concerning light and sight lines, when arranging your rooms.
  • Position mirrors to negate surprises. If the room layout makes it necessary for one’s back to be toward the door, or if it creates blind intersections, a thoughtfully placed mirror can help prevent panicky startle reflexes.
  • Insulate windows and provide light-controlling blinds. (If you’re wondering why, read point 5 above.)
  • Install an intercom with remote door locks and releases. If you can’t hear who’s on the other side, you may be very apprehensive about answering the door, but technology can help.
  • Install alternative security alert measures. Hearing-impaired people will find it easier to relax at home if they know they will get visual or tactile alerts from smoke detectors, door bells, phones and burglar alarms. (When I was home alone before I married, I used to pile all the kitchen pots and pans in front of the door to ensure that I would hear an intruder. Without them, I was simply too nervous to sleep.)

A wide range of devices are available to assist hard-of-hearing people. They range from flashing door “bells” to vibrating alarm clocks to ADA hotel kits and smoke alarms that set off strobe lights. Here are a couple good places to find them.



My father used to say,
“Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow’s grave
or the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self-reliant like the cat—
that takes its prey to privacy,

the mouse’s limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth—
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint.”
Nor was he insincere in saying,
“Make my house your inn.”
Inns are not residences.

Marianne Moore


9 thoughts on ““Def” Design in a Noisy World

  1. Thanks for all this insightful information. I was not aware of a lot of this so I have learned something new. Thanks for having those links as well. A very well written post.

  2. What a fabulous and informative post, Nicolette! I’m conversant with design for the visually and mobility impaired, and have also studied acoustics, but I haven’t known some of these specifics that are helpful for a hearing-impaired person. It’s probably the weak link in my knowledge of accessible space.

    I’d just like to add that from the perspective of acoustics, even good quality windows and some sound absorbent materials in a space may not provide enough sound control if not also accompanied by proper acoustical insulation of spaces like the walls themselves, particularly around electrical outlets, light switches, and HVAC outlets, especially if noise levels are really high. Likewise, properly insulating the ductwork itself in ceilings and walls will dramatically decrease the noise transmission of these things into interior spaces.

    Failure to treat these interstitial spaces as well as doing things like adding insulation into walls is the number one cause of failure of overall acoustical control treatments, because the sound *will* find these openings, no matter how small, and traverse them.

    And, while soft furnishings and carpet are helpful, in some cases, more is necessary, and there are also ways around some common problems like hardwood floors. Putting a cork underlayment under the floor will help muffle sound transmission from floor to floor without having to use carpet, if that’s an issue, and there are a number of acoustical treatments available for walls and ceilings that can radically decrease the noise level even more than furniture and draperies can, and still integrate well into the decor.

    Of course, these guidelines apply to any situation in which people want to decrease noise transmission and reverberation time, whether or not hearing-impaired people will be using the space.

  3. Great site this nicolettet.wordpress.com and I am really pleased to see you have what I am actually looking for here and this this post is exactly what I am interested in. I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor 🙂

  4. Another delightful and useful posting – and, as always, well written, referenced and illustrated.
    I would like to ask your consent to translate it to Portuguese and post in our NGO website.
    Ana Isabel

  5. Dear Ana:

    I would be delighted to have you translate the posting and put it on your NGO website in Portugese. That’s a great idea. Please send me the link when you’ve done the translation so I can post it on the blog too!

    I’d love to know more about your NGO.

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