It started at the gala opening of the glittering Robson Square, part of the $160-million Courthouse Complex in Vancouver. The brass-band hoopla and rhapsodic quotes about the beauty of the complex and its rooftop pools, waterfalls, theatres and skating rink, were almost immediately drowned out by the revelation that “white noise” was being fed into over half the structure’s open office areas.
And what is white noise? If you enter an open office area and the outside traffic and general office noise seem to be strangely fading away and you detect a very slight hiss in your ear you are likely being subjected to, or bombarded by, white noise. It’s a complex sound whose frequency components are so numerous, and so closely spaced that it has no pitch. It is created by generators and fed through loudspeakers and sounds like a prolonged hiss similar to that of an amplifier-loudspeaker system turned to maximum volume. The use of white noise—also called “acoustic mist” or “masking sound,” has become “accepted architectural practice” for modern buildings espousing the fashionable open-office concept, where solid walls are done away with in favor of open space. Many architects, interior designers, acoustical engineers and fur-
niture manufacturers are pushing for open-plan offices. One obvious reason: in a time of constantly rising construction costs, they are cheaper to build.
Acoustical engineers claim that by using masking sound in these open areas it is possible to create walls of invisible sound, little pools of privacy blocking out other distracting noise and conversation. The result is an increase in efficiency, concentration and productivity creating a more enjoyable working atmosphere. The concept’s critics claim these advantages are precisely what the concept will destroy in the long run, and further, that it may have an insidious effect on the human psyche. They say that the only real purpose behind the concept is to cut down supervisory staff and avoid the costs of building walls and partitions.
Ed Vossenaar, who is responsible for occupational health and safety with the British Columbia Government Employees Union, which represents workers at Robson Square, says there has been an extraordinary flood of complaints from them, citing a feeling of isolation, nausea, headache and fatigue. In another government building using pink sound (another type of white noise), he says, absenteeism was reported as double the highest average
rate in B.C. The union has referred the matter to the Workers’ Compensation Board. And WCB, in response, now has experts flown at Robson Square, measuring and evaluating the phenomenon. Says Elizabeth Wright of the WCB, “If somebody gushes blood you know they have a problem. But when people say, ‘Gee, I’m really fed up and I don’t know why, and I have headaches and nausea and irritation,’ it’s very hard to pinpoint. We’re interested and we’re investigating.”
Dr. Jeanne Stellman of the American Health Foundation, invited to B.C. by the B.C. Federation of Labor and the Canadian Labor Congress, went on local television and stirred the pot further. “The body can’t tell the difference between different forms of stress,” she said. “The whole point of white noise is to increase productivity and allow people to build cheap offices and insert background noise just to keep the tension and pace up. It puts people in cocoons and isolates them, and breaks down the informal work groups that make office work slightly more bearable. I find white noise an inexcusable way of experimenting with people. The research is certainly inadequate.” Professor Barry Truax, from the department of communication at Simon Fraser University, agrees with Dr. Stellman’s views. “The effect of white noise is very claustrophobic,” he says. “It seems to be covering up other sounds, but it isn’t. It’s different from natural sound because it’s steady. Sound with no information becomes uninteresting to the brain, and the brain no longer pays attention. This doesn’t mean it’s not affecting you. Where sound information is not identifiable, a hostile environment develops.” Professor Red Wetherill of the University of British Columbia’s school of architecture, contends that the virtue of white noise is precisely that it doesn’t contain information. “Steady, constant sound is unobtrusive and innocuous,” he says. “You forget about it. The ability to concentrate increases.”
Professor Truax: “Instead of listening outward, you retreat inward and become alienated. You’re cut off from basic interaction with your environment by this pool of sound. Instead of walls absorbing sound, people have to.” So far the issue has not caused excessive alarm. According to Louis van Blankenstein, project manager for Robson Square, “It’s a storm in a teacup.” Says Dr. Edgar Shaw, head of the acoustics section, National Research Council, Ottawa: “If people aren’t happy with their environment, their unhappiness will float around until they find something to focus on: it becomes the pivotal issue.”
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