Sick Sounds: Hospitals as Acoustic Environments

by Vincent Meelberg


Designing and constructing a new building is a major undertaking. The building needs to meet the requirements of its future occupants, comply with government regulations, and at the same time look aesthetically pleasing. Increasingly, buildings are expected to look spectacular.

Builldings, however, not only have a look, but a sound – or rather, sounds – as well. All buildings have acoustic identities. These identities are shaped by the ways in which the rooms are shaped and decorated, which determines its acoustics. The fact that a room sound reverberant, shrill, hollow, dark, or dampened codetermines the atmosphere, or ambiance, of that room. This aural architecture, as Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter call it in their book Spaces Speak: Are You Listening? (MIT
Press 2007), can also have a social meaning: 

For example, the bare marble floors and walls of an office lobby loudly announce the arrival of visitors by the resounding echoes of their footsteps. In contrast, thick carpeting, upholstered furniture, and heavy draperies, all of which suppress incident or reflected sounds, would mute that announcement. The aural architecture of the lobby thus determines whether entering is a public or private event. (Blesser & Salter 2007: 3) 

Yet, the inhabitants of a space also contribute to the acoustic
identities of a building. In his TED Talk, sound consultant Julian Treasure
explains how the acoustic environments we live and work in influence the way we function:

Sound thus seems to be extremely important when designing a new building and proper attention needs to be given to the acoustic environments.

This is particularly true when that building is a hospital. Sounds are extremely important in a hospital, as they contain important information concerning the health of patients. The hospital staff needs to be able to properly listen to the auditory signals produced by the medical equipment. If they are not able to, this may lead to dangerous and sometimes even life-threatening situations for patients. It is all the more surprising, then, that only fairly recently hospitals and medical equipment manufacturers are paying attention to the manners in which medical devices sound alarms.

The acoustic environments in hospitals affect patients as well. In some cases, they may even be harmful to them. Therefore, the acoustic environment of a hospital needs to strike a balance between auditory signals that the staff needs to hear, without overwhelming them with sounds, and at the same time not being too stressful for the patients, perhaps even be soothing to them. In any case, the acoustic environment should not aggrevate the patient’s condition.The Japanese electronic musician Yoko K. wondered if the acoustic environment in hospitals could be improved:

The Future of Hospital Sound from Yoko K. on Vimeo.

One of the manners in which Yoko K. intends to improve the hospital’s acoustic environment by making sure the sounds produced by medical equipment are more or less consonant, in tune. And although that would perhaps improve the acoustic environment, the question is whether or not it would diminish the signal value of the sounds. In other words: will these sounds still be noticed by the medical staff, because the different sounds blend to well?

It is because of these conflicting sonic conditions that designing the sonic environment of a hospital is so complicated. At this moment a new children’s hospital is being built in Utrecht, and this time sound is a concern. Together with soundbranding agency Blckbrd and the Radboud University the hospital will investigate the manners in which the acoustic environment in the hospital can be optimised. This hospital will not only look spectacular, but sound the part as well.