Putting People First

Create confidential spaces and take speech privacy to the next level
Sponsored by Armstrong Ceiling and Wall Solutions
By Rebecca A. Pinkus, MTPW, MA
1 AIA LU/HSW; 1 AIBD P-CE; 0.1 IACET CEU*; 1 IDCEC CEU/HSW; AAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; AANB 1 Hour of Core Learning; AAPEI 1 Structured Learning Hour; This course can be self-reported to the AIBC, as per their CE Guidelines.; MAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; NLAA 1 Hour of Core Learning; NSAA 1 Hour of Core Learning; NWTAA 1 Structured Learning Hour; OAA 1 Learning Hour; SAA 1 Hour of Core Learning

Learning Objectives:

  1. Describe current construction practices that impact speech privacy, overall confidentiality, and enhance the health, safety, and welfare of building occupants.
  2. Define and apply the specific acoustical measurements for speech privacy and confidentiality in closed-plan spaces, and understand how they impact occupant well-being.
  3. Discuss how acoustical ceiling solutions can create balanced acoustical design that protects occupant confidentiality in a variety of applications.
  4. Explain how new high-sound-blocking ceiling panels can be used to quickly and economically provide high levels of speech privacy and confidentiality to existing spaces, thus helping designers meet relevant health and safety standards.

This course is part of the Acoustics Academy

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Conference Rooms and Private Offices

While conference rooms and private offices should provide speech privacy and confidentiality, the combination of ceiling penetrations, hard surfaces, and furniture in the space may not provide balanced acoustical performance.


Thoughtful acoustical design can help ensure confidentiality between closed-plan offices and adjacent spaces.

Sometimes, spaces simply are not built for speech privacy. If, for example, the wall partitions do not fully block sound, the ceilings are not designed to buffer sound between the adjacent spaces, or the ceilings have low acoustical performance, sound will get through. We will discuss how wall and ceiling design need to work together to create a balanced acoustic design later in the course.

Health-Care Facilities

Health-care facilities such as doctors’ offices, clinics, nurse stations, and hospitals can be tricky places when it comes to acoustics. On the one hand, environments such as hospitals can be unusually noisy, which can impact patient care and staff well-being. On the other hand, clinics, patient registration areas, and pharmacies—all areas where patients discuss personal information—can be too quiet. When a space is too quiet, there is a risk that confidential patient information may be overheard. Moreover, new privacy rules associated with HIPAA protect individually identifiable, orally transmitted health information. Creating balanced acoustical design in such spaces can be a challenge.


Hospitals are not always designed to ensure private conversations. Designing with acoustical ceiling and wall panels can help.

Hospitals have a reputation for being noisy places, and over the past several decades, researchers have been examining the impacts of that noise on both patients and medical staff. In 2008, a World Health Organization (WHO) study identified that noise levels in hospitals have been increasing since 1960, with sound levels often reaching 100 decibels (dB) at times. The WHO has recommended that for patient treatment or observation rooms, the decibel level should not exceed 35 dB, and the limit should be 30 dB for ward rooms where patients stay overnight.3

Patients often complain of a decreased ability to sleep in hospital rooms, due to reflected sounds and voices from corridors, medical equipment, pagers, and alarms. Noise in a space designated for healing is problematic; patient rooms designed with sound-absorbing acoustical ceiling panels can improve patient experience and well-being.

In spaces lacking correct acoustical treatment, speech privacy can also be compromised. Patients may overhear conversations with or about other patients, and HIPAA requirements may be at risk.

Medical staff may be impacted as well when background noise levels tend to be high. In this case, poor acoustic design can affect speech intelligibility, which is critical in health-care facilities. Oral communication between physicians and medical staff is essential in a hospital environment. When communication is compromised or medical staff are distracted by other noises, performance can be impacted.

The WHO-recommended maximum decibel level is 35 dB; however, studies have shown that background noise levels in hospitals are more often in the 45–68 dB range, and can go as high as 85–90 dB.4 In addition, staff members who are exposed to constant high levels of background noise are more likely to suffer from emotional exhaustion and burnout. A shift to lower noise levels has been shown to increase hospital worker productivity and improve overall hospital experience for both staff and patients.

However, distracting noises are only one piece of the problem. Another critical issue concerns patient confidentiality, which often stems from the architectural design of a space. Because of the need for durable, easy-to-clean surfaces on walls and floors, sounds reverberate and carry exceptionally well along corridors. As a result, there may be situations where protecting speech privacy and patient confidentiality is challenging.

Patient confidentiality in this case may include conversations between the patient and medical staff, the medical staff and family members, or among the family members. In addition to discussing sensitive information about treatment and care, personal data such as a person’s date of birth and address may be shared and overheard.


Health-care facilities such as hospitals benefit greatly from balanced acoustical design.

HIPAA, which was introduced in 1996 and most recently updated in 2013, was initially created to improve health-care efficiency, reduce waste, combat fraud, and ensure that individuals’ health information would be protected and kept private and confidential. That is, personal and private information—whether medical record numbers, addresses, birth dates, or even names—would be kept confidential.

And yet, so often in health-care facilities, patients are asked to provide this information verbally in reception areas and their hospital rooms. Architectural and acoustical design can make or break whether HIPAA’s confidentiality clause is at risk.

Learning Spaces: Schools and Classrooms

Balanced acoustics in schools and educational facilities are essential to both students and teachers. Classrooms that are not designed with acoustics in mind can impact students, teachers, and staff by increasing stress and decreasing the ability to concentrate. And classrooms where proper acoustical performance for the space is considered can improve student performance while reducing teacher burnout.

While all students require an acoustically balanced learning environment, research shows that younger students who are still learning language and students with learning disorders are especially vulnerable to poor acoustical environments. The issue is so well researched and important that the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) has established guidelines for addressing acoustics in educational settings and reinforces the following four key points.5

  1. There are students in every classroom, especially in early grades, that either cannot hear well and/or cannot process speech and language well.
  2. Not hearing and/or processing well negatively impacts student listening and learning, especially learning to read.
  3. Low teacher voice level, excessive background noise level, and excessive reverberation exacerbate listening and learning problems.
  4. Improvements in classroom acoustics may require solutions involving architectural design and/or acoustical modifications, and in special cases, hearing-assistive technologies.

In addition, the American National Standard (ANSI) has created a specific standard for schools, ANSI Standard S12.60: Acoustical Performance Criteria, Design Requirements, and Guidelines for Schools. This provides guidance for new school classrooms and learning spaces. It also addresses reverberation time, background noise, and their effect on speech intelligibility, requiring a maximum reverberation time of 0.6 seconds for a unfurnished, unoccupied classroom less than 10,000 cubic feet. The maximum background noise level in that same classroom may only be 35 dB.


Noise in classrooms can bounce and reverberate off of walls and windows. Acoustical ceiling panels can help absorb and block the sound.

School administrative offices also require special acoustical design to provide employees with quiet spaces to work and ensure that speech privacy and confidentiality are protected. These offices are usually designed as closed, private spaces, but depending on the construction, conversations may still be audible from corridors or adjacent spaces. Given that student information may be discussed in these spaces, perhaps with parents or between teachers and administrators, it is critical that these offices are designed for speech privacy.

While speech privacy is important for classrooms and private offices, there are other learning environments where acoustical design is also important. Auditoriums, conference rooms and seminar rooms all present unique challenges for acoustical performance. For example, audio/visual presentations are common forms of information delivery, and the space needs to guarantee that speakers can be easily heard and understood while not disrupting building occupants outside of the space. Conference rooms may be used for lectures or roundtable discussions, both of which have different acoustical requirements. Often, movable partitions may be implemented to create smaller spaces; however, the sound between those spaces must be controlled. Seminar rooms will also require good acoustical balance, especially since such rooms tend to be fairly small.

In each of these situations, the design challenge is to balance the acoustics to provide an environment that facilitates clear speech intelligibility, provides necessary quiet for focus areas, and addresses the need for speech privacy and confidentiality in certain spaces. Acoustical ceiling and wall panels can help manage sound in each of these situations, and address speech privacy where it is required. For example, select ceiling design can create quiet library spaces or help balance sound absorption and blocking in classrooms to help teachers better be heard, thus helping students learn. While common areas such as corridors, lobbies, gymnasiums, and cafeterias may not present privacy needs, all have unique challenges, and good acoustical ceiling design can help absorb and block sound, controlling unwanted noise in those spaces.

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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in January 2020