09:52
TEDGlobal 2012

Julian Treasure: Why architects need to use their ears

Filmed:

Because of poor acoustics, students in classrooms miss 50 percent of what their teachers say and patients in hospitals have trouble sleeping because they continually feel stressed. Julian Treasure sounds a call to action for designers to pay attention to the “invisible architecture” of sound.

- Sound consultant
Julian Treasure studies sound and advises businesses on how best to use it. Full bio

It's time to start designing for our ears.
00:16
Architects and designers tend to focus
00:20
exclusively on these.
00:22
They use these to design with and they design for them,
00:24
which is why we end up sitting in restaurants that look
00:27
like this — (loud crowd noise) — and sound like this,
00:29
shouting from a foot away to try and be heard
00:31
by our dinner companion,
00:34
or why we get on airplanes -- (flight attendant announcements) -- which cost 200 million pounds,
00:35
with somebody talking through an old-fashioned telephone handset
00:38
on a cheap stereo system,
00:42
making us jump out of our skins.
00:44
We're designing environments that make us crazy. (Laughter)
00:46
And it's not just our quality of life which suffers.
00:50
It's our health,
00:52
our social behavior, and our productivity as well.
00:54
How does this work? Well, two ways.
00:58
First of all, ambience. I have a whole TEDTalk about this.
01:00
Sound affects us physiologically, psychologically,
01:03
cognitively and behaviorally all the time.
01:07
The sound around us is affecting us
01:09
even though we're not conscious of it.
01:11
There's a second way though, as well.
01:13
That's interference. Communication requires sending
01:15
and receiving, and I have another whole TEDTalk
01:18
about the importance of conscious listening,
01:22
but I can send as well as I like,
01:24
and you can be brilliant conscious listeners.
01:26
If the space I'm sending it in is not effective,
01:29
that communication can't happen.
01:32
Spaces tend to include noise and acoustics.
01:35
A room like this has acoustics, this one very good acoustics.
01:37
Many rooms are not so good.
01:41
Let me give you some examples from a couple of areas
01:43
which I think we all care about: health and education.
01:45
(Hospital noises) When I was visiting my terminally ill father
01:49
in a hospital, I was asking myself,
01:51
how does anybody get well in a place that sounds like this?
01:53
Hospital sound is getting worse all the time.
01:57
Noise levels in hospitals have doubled
01:59
in the last few years, and it affects not just the patients
02:01
but also the people working there.
02:05
I think we would like for dispensing errors to be zero,
02:07
wouldn't we? And yet, as noise levels go up, so do
02:11
the errors in dispensing made by the staff in hospitals.
02:14
Most of all, though, it affects the patients,
02:18
and that could be you, it could be me.
02:21
Sleep is absolutely crucial for recovery.
02:23
It's when we regenerate, when we rebuild ourselves,
02:25
and with threatening noise like this going on,
02:28
your body, even if you are able to sleep, your body
02:31
is telling you, "I'm under threat. This is dangerous."
02:34
And the quality of sleep is degraded, and so is our recovery.
02:37
There are just huge benefits to come
02:40
from designing for the ears in our health care.
02:42
This is an area I intend to take on this year.
02:45
Education.
02:48
When I see a classroom that looks like this,
02:50
can you imagine how this sounds?
02:52
I am forced to ask myself a question.
02:54
("Do architects have ears?") (Laughter)
02:56
Now, that's a little unfair. Some of my best friends
02:59
are architects. (Laughter) And they definitely do have ears.
03:01
But I think sometimes they don't use them
03:04
when they're designing buildings. Here's a case in point.
03:06
This is a 32-million-pound flagship academy school
03:09
which was built quite recently in the U.K. and designed
03:13
by one of Britain's top architects.
03:15
Unfortunately, it was designed like a corporate
03:18
headquarters, with a vast central atrium
03:20
and classrooms leading off it with no back walls at all.
03:22
The children couldn't hear their teachers.
03:26
They had to go back in and spend 600,000 pounds
03:28
putting the walls in. Let's stop this madness
03:31
of open plan classrooms right now, please.
03:34
It's not just these modern buildings which suffer.
03:38
Old-fashioned classrooms suffer too.
03:42
A study in Florida just a few years ago found
03:44
that if you're sitting where this photograph was taken
03:46
in the classroom, row four, speech intelligibility
03:48
is just 50 percent.
03:51
Children are losing one word in two.
03:53
Now that doesn't mean they only get half their education,
03:56
but it does mean they have to work very hard
03:58
to join the dots and understand what's going on.
04:00
This is affected massively by reverberation time,
04:03
how reverberant a room is.
04:06
In a classroom with a reverberation time of 1.2 seconds,
04:08
which is pretty common, this is what it sounds like.
04:11
(Inaudible echoing voice)
04:15
Not so good, is it?
04:27
If you take that 1.2 seconds down to 0.4 seconds
04:29
by installing acoustic treatments, sound absorbing materials
04:33
and so forth, this is what you get.
04:36
Voice: In language, infinitely many words can be written
04:39
with a small set of letters. In arithmetic,
04:43
infinitely many numbers can be composed
04:46
from just a few digits with the help of the simple zero.
04:48
Julian Treasure: What a difference.
04:52
Now that education you would receive,
04:53
and thanks to the British acoustician Adrian James
04:55
for those simulations. The signal was the same,
04:58
the background noise was the same.
05:01
All that changed was the acoustics of the classroom
05:02
in those two examples.
05:05
If education can be likened to watering a garden,
05:06
which is a fair metaphor, sadly, much of the water
05:09
is evaporating before it reaches the flowers,
05:13
especially for some groups,
05:16
for example, those with hearing impairment.
05:18
Now that's not just deaf children. That could be any child
05:21
who's got a cold, glue ear, an ear infection,
05:24
even hay fever. On a given day, one in eight children
05:27
fall into that group, on any given day.
05:29
Then you have children for whom English is a second language,
05:32
or whatever they're being taught in is a second language.
05:35
In the U.K., that's more than 10 percent of the school population.
05:38
And finally, after Susan Cain's wonderful TEDTalk in February,
05:41
we know that introverts find it very difficult to relate
05:45
when they're in a noisy environment doing group work.
05:48
Add those up. That is a lot of children
05:51
who are not receiving their education properly.
05:54
It's not just the children who are affected, though.
05:56
(Noisy conversation) This study in Germany found
05:58
the average noise level in classrooms is 65 decibels.
06:00
I have to really raise my voice to talk over 65 decibels
06:03
of sound, and teachers are not just raising their voices.
06:08
This chart maps the teacher's heart rate
06:11
against the noise level.
06:14
Noise goes up, heart rate goes up.
06:17
That is not good for you.
06:19
In fact, 65 decibels is the very level at which this big survey
06:22
of all the evidence on noise and health found that, that is
06:26
the threshold for the danger of myocardial infarction.
06:29
To you and me, that's a heart attack.
06:34
It may not be pushing the boat out too far to suggest
06:37
that many teachers are losing significant life expectancy
06:39
by teaching in environments like that day after day.
06:44
What does it cost to treat a classroom
06:48
down to that 0.4-second reverberation time?
06:50
Two and a half thousand pounds.
06:53
And the Essex study which has just been done in the U.K.,
06:56
which incidentally showed that when you do this,
06:59
you do not just make a room that's suitable
07:01
for hearing-impaired children, you make a room
07:03
where behavior improves, and results improve significantly,
07:05
this found that sending a child out of area to a school
07:10
that does have such a room, if you don't have one,
07:14
costs 90,000 pounds a year.
07:17
I think the economics are pretty clear on this.
07:20
I'm glad that debate is happening on this.
07:23
I just moderated a major conference in London
07:25
a few weeks ago called Sound Education,
07:27
which brought together top acousticians,
07:29
government people, teachers, and so forth.
07:31
We're at last starting to debate this issue, and the benefits
07:33
that are available for designing for the ears in education,
07:37
unbelievable.
07:40
Out of that conference, incidentally, also came
07:42
a free app which is designed to help children study
07:45
if they're having to work at home, for example,
07:48
in a noisy kitchen.
07:50
And that's free out of that conference.
07:52
Let's broaden the perspective a little bit
07:55
and look at cities.
07:58
We have urban planners.
08:00
Where are the urban sound planners?
08:02
I don't know of one in the world, and the opportunity is there
08:05
to transform our experience in our cities.
08:08
The World Health Organization estimates
08:11
that a quarter of Europe's population is having its sleep
08:13
degraded by noise in cities. We can do better than that.
08:16
And in our offices, we spend a lot of time at work.
08:20
Where are the office sound planners?
08:22
People who say, don't sit that team next to this team,
08:25
because they like noise and they need quiet.
08:27
Or who say, don't spend all your budget on a huge screen
08:29
in the conference room,
08:32
and then place one tiny microphone
08:33
in the middle of a table for 30 people. (Laughter)
08:35
If you can hear me, you can understand me
08:38
without seeing me. If you can see me without hearing me,
08:40
that does not work.
08:44
So office sound is a huge area, and incidentally,
08:46
noise in offices has been shown to make people
08:49
less helpful, less enjoy their teamwork,
08:51
and less productive at work.
08:54
Finally, we have homes. We use interior designers.
08:56
Where are the interior sound designers?
08:59
Hey, let's all be interior sound designers,
09:01
take on listening to our rooms and designing sound
09:05
that's effective and appropriate.
09:08
My friend Richard Mazuch, an architect in London,
09:09
coined the phrase "invisible architecture."
09:12
I love that phrase.
09:14
It's about designing, not appearance, but experience,
09:16
so that we have spaces that sound as good as they look,
09:21
that are fit for purpose, that improve our quality of life,
09:25
our health and well being, our social behavior
09:28
and our productivity.
09:31
It's time to start designing for the ears.
09:33
Thank you. (Applause)
09:37
(Applause)
09:40
Thank you. (Applause)
09:41
Translated by Morton Bast
Reviewed by Thu-Huong Ha

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About the Speaker:

Julian Treasure - Sound consultant
Julian Treasure studies sound and advises businesses on how best to use it.

Why you should listen

Julian Treasure is the chair of the Sound Agency, a firm that advises worldwide businesses -- offices, retailers, hotels -- on how to use sound. He asks us to pay attention to the sounds that surround us. How do they make us feel: productive, stressed, energized, acquisitive?

Treasure is the author of the book Sound Business and keeps a blog by the same name that ruminates on aural matters (and offers a nice day-by-day writeup of TEDGlobal 2009). In the early 1980s, Treasure was the drummer for the Fall-influenced band Transmitters.

More profile about the speaker
Julian Treasure | Speaker | TED.com