When some people consider sustainable buildings, they think of wood from a certified forest, whether carpeting was used, or if harvested rainwater was employed for landscaping. Others may think of energy efficiency, solar panels, and daylighting to reduce electric light usage. In other words, sustainability is often seen as being about the impact the building makes on the natural environment, and how much energy and water the building uses. While these are very important considerations, they are not the main focus of what makes a building sustainable.
The biggest resource expended in buildings is on its occupants—even more than the materials used to construct it or the energy used during its lifetime. The World Green Building Council’s (WGBC’s) 2014 report, “Health, Wellbeing, and Productivity in Offices: The Next Chapter for Green Building,” says 90 percent of business operation costs are staff related. Only one percent of costs are energy-related. Additionally, staff spends 62 percent of their time doing quiet work—‘quiet’ being the operative word. Sustainable buildings should actually be equated to the preservation and efficient use of human capital, and a quiet work environment is necessary for this.
Almost everyone can relate to the waste and inefficiency noise causes. The lost time, mistakes, and stress of each individual, multiplied by all the people in a building, can be partially attributed to poor acoustic design, which, in turn, can indicate whether a building is sustainable or not.
This acoustics relating to sustainability paradigm shift is starting to materialize in both the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design version 4 (LEED v4) and the Green Building Initiative’s (GBI’s) Green Globes certification program. In LEED 2009, there were only well-developed acoustic criteria sections for schools and healthcare facilities. LEED v4 has acoustic criteria for office buildings, multi-family residences, hotels, retail stores, courtrooms, laboratories, libraries, and gymnasia. Clearly, the importance of acoustic design in the definition of sustainability is increasing. However, there is more progress to be made with these sustainable rating systems. The acoustic sections need to better align with other, more developed, acoustics industry standards and guidelines. Additionally, the credits or points earned for good acoustic design need to be increased to better represent the effort, cost, and impact on occupants.