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Acoustics: playing a key role in sustainable development

Acoustics By Colin O'Connor, Associate, Acoustics – 25 January 2022

University of Wollongong (UOW) College Hong Kong

Internal reception of a university, a round room with white walls and floor and wooden beamed ceiling


Colin in a dark t-shirt standing in an open plan office area

Colin O'Connor

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I believe we have a moral obligation to provide sustainable development. That is what gets me out of bed in the morning and go to work knowing that I can contribute to the betterment of the world around us.

Sustainable development is one that “…meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland and Khalid, 1987). It is paramount to the overall integrity of numerous industries and to the collective health, safety, and wellbeing of those who live, work, and play within the spaces created by building design professionals. As such, its relationship with acoustics is an important issue.

Fundamentally, an indoor or outdoor space is more sustainable with a good sound quality. The links between unwanted sound and health risks such as stress or sleep disturbance are well documented and direct causal links have been established between long-term noise exposure and loss of life years. High density urban areas, where sources of sound (including construction, road traffic, rail lines, airports and industrial facilities) are located in close proximity to noise-sensitive areas (for example homes, offices, schools and hospitals) can cause conflict between the need for ongoing development and the users of those spaces.

Before joining Cundall, my career focus was on outdoor noise emissions and people’s behavioural or physiological responses to noise pollution. With reference to national policy such as the National Planning Policy Framework and the Noise Policy Statement for England or wider reaching international guidance (such as World Health Organisation (WHO) Guidelines for Community Noise), I assessed changes to the external ambient noise environment introduced by new development and subsequent impacts on local communities. I developed mitigation strategies to help avoid, reduce, control and manage the scale of adverse noise effects in order to contribute to the longevity of a healthy environment.

Joining Cundall has given me an opportunity to bring this together with internal noise environments, by looking at the architectural design of spaces. But why is this important in the context of sustainable development?

The 2001 National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS) identified that we spend close to 90% of our time indoors, be it at home, school, work or carrying out social and leisure activities. This statistic will vary for individuals or groups of people, but the key finding of NHAPS is we are essentially an indoor species.

Given that, as a modern society we will spend most of our time indoors, it is essential that we are able to provide the highest quality environments for people and acoustics are an essential part of this. At Cundall we can directly influence this as part of the building acoustics design. We can enhance the acoustics in sensitive spaces by carefully selecting wall and floor partitions; developing acoustic insulation packages to achieve suitable internal noise levels; optimising room layouts and adjoining uses; considering internal reverberation and surface treatments; controlling noise transfer from internal mechanical systems and advising on the balance of fresh air provision, overheating and acoustics.

Cundall's pledge for Zero Carbon Design on all projects by 2030 means our acoustics team will contribute to optimising zero carbon solutions, including embodied carbon, energy efficiency and integrated renewables. Having an approach that balances the internal and external noise concerns whist minimising the overall material uses and, where possible, the circular economy, is the key.


  • Brundtland, G.H. and Khalid, M., 1987. Our common future. Oxford University Press, Oxford, GB.
  • Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs, 2010. Noise Policy Statement for England.
  • Klepeis, N.E., Nelson, W.C., Ott, W.R., Robinson, J.P., Tsang, A.M., Switzer, P., Behar, J.V., Hern, S.C. and Engelmann, W.H., 2001. The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): a resource for assessing exposure to environmental pollutants. Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, 11(3), pp.231-252.
  • Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, 2021. National Planning Policy Framework.
  • Berglund, B., Lindvall, T., Schwela, D.H. and World Health Organization, 1999. Guidelines for community noise.