When it comes to architecture, we often judge a book by its cover. And while the aesthetic of architecture is essential, it does only tell part of the story.

Dr Sing D’Arcy, UNSW Built Environment, says we experience architecture through more than just our eyes. The non-visual sensory inputs, which are often understated, are just as crucial.

“Architecture is very optic dominated. But the reality is, if we allow the eyes to dominate, we’re missing out on all our other senses, like hearing,” the interior architect says. “It’s also important for universal accessibility... to ensure that we’re not designing a lesser experience.”

Auditory attention and health

In fact, hearing is more important to architecture than you might first think. The level of noise in our environments has a significant effect on our health.

“When we think about the acoustic environment and sound, in terms of noise, it has a tremendous effect on wellbeing,” Dr D’Arcy says. “For example, it impacts your attention and ability to focus; it can result in a loss of productivity … that’s before thinking about damage to your hearing.”

Dr D’Arcy says noise pollution could also be testing our spaces more than ever before. Modern apartments buildings are often inadequately designed to counter sound, with thin glass windows and even thinner walls that don’t block out the noise.

“We know people who live next to noisy environments, like highways, can suffer from more health issues in general already,” he says.

With many people working from home during the pandemic, the need to reduce noise within the home has only become more pronounced.

“I also think we could be seeing more of the impact, especially with a lot of us working from home, with kids and family around,” he says. “It can be a horror story because we haven’t had to consider our living spaces before for the noise.”

While there could be an argument for wearing noise-cancelling headphones or removing yourself from the environment, it’s not always practical. Rather, we need to better design housing with appropriate sound mitigation, he says.

“I think that noise is something that needs to be tackled in the built environment, from a wellbeing perspective,” he says. “It’s about being more generous with design.

“If we do need to build on every available piece of land, we need to make sure that the housing is soundproof.”

And it’s not only our residential spaces that need better sound insulation.

“Whether you go to a restaurant, you’re in an office, if you’re at home in your apartment, you shouldn’t have to have other people’s noise negatively affecting you.”

Soundproofing for music

Dr D’Arcy says better soundproofing standards throughout the built environment is essential for health but could also provide some unexpected benefits.

“Once we’re designing in such a way that allows people to be in a safe environment, the second thing is, how can we make more enjoyable spaces that enrich your life,” he says.

“For example, we have so many incredible interior spaces that have the potential to house music and performance, and yet we don’t seem to take advantage of that.”

Dr D’Arcy says there could be a strong economic case for properly soundproofing venues in particular, with music production and performance in mind.

“We often talk about revitalising the live music scene in Sydney, and I think we can tackle that, in part, through design … and combine music and great architecture together,” he says.

“We can design interior spaces properly with the right materials [to maximise soundproofing, while enhancing acoustics] so that you can have an international DJ playing at five in the morning, and nobody [sleeping] has to hear it.”

It might seem simple on the surface, but the challenge would be convincing developers to fork out the money for better soundproofing systems, he says.

“Building [spaces] with excellent sound insulation isn’t cheap … but neither is the headache of noise complaints.”