M. Shea, M Arch. Research Associate
Kelly Chur, Research Assistant
Maureen E. McBride,Research Assistant
Center for Assistive Technology / IDEA Center, State University of New
York at Buffalo
Normalization of group homes entails more than the visual appearance.
Non visual features such as poor acoustics can be just as important.
There may be a relationship between poor acoustics and resident comfort
and behavioral outbursts. Several group homes in Western New York were
studied to determine the extent of poor acoustic conditions and their
causes. Size and material choices, in conjunction with the use of space
contributed to poor acoustic conditions. Recommendations are made to
address acoustic problems, as well as suggestions for future study.
Normalization, or the integration of the individual into the prevalent
culture of society is the operant philosophy behind de institutionalization
of people with developmental disabilities. It is the rationale behind
the construction of community residences and group homes. The need to
provide for health and safety for the residents as well as budgetary
constraints, however, often conflict with the goal of normalization.
Visible fire safety equipment and "institutional" surfaces
and furniture designed to be easy to clean are examples of this conflict.
Resolving such conflicts is a major goal of research concerning group
homes. There are many examples of studies that seek to provide guidelines
for creating more homelike environments in group homes (see for example
Robinson et .al., 1984). These studies are primarily concerned with
the visual environment. However there is more to environmental experience
than how a place looks. J. J. Gibson characterized human experience
and perception as the interaction of five systems: visual, auditory,
taste/smell, haptic and orientation (Gibson, 1966. pg. 4). Traditional
conceptions of perception acknowledge the five senses: taste, touch,
smell, vision and hearing. Thus perceptual theory suggests that there
are additional aspects to normalization beyond appearance.
In particular, acoustics can have a strong impact on the character of
a place. What acoustic issues in group homes affect normalization, health
and well being of the residents? There are a range of concerns, from
the physical comfort of the residents, the safety and stability of the
staff's working conditions, as well as questions about the relationship,
if any, between acoustic problems and behavioral incidents among residents
with autism and other disabilities.
In response to these concerns, a study was conducted to examine several
group homes whose design was based on prototypical plans used throughout
the state. The objective was to determine the nature and extent of any
acoustic problems and recommend countermeasures that could be implemented
statewide. In one case, specific design recommendations were requested.
Four homes were examined, two were based on the prototype plan. Two
objective measures were used to describe acoustic conditions, reverberation
time and sound pressure level. Sound pressure level is a measure of
the intensity or loudness of a sound. It is measure in units called
decibels (dB). Sound pressure levels are often weighted to account for
variations in intensity at different frequencies, with the A weighted
scale being the most commonly used. Sound pressure levels in this study
were taken with a sound pressure level meter and measured in decibels
using an A weighted scale, or dB(A). Decibel level rises on a logarithmic
scale, thus a 50dB sound level is ten times an intense as a 40dB sound
level. Sound pressure level data was obtained in only one of the four
homes, as it was the only one where the residents were present. Reverberation
time is a measure of how long a sound persists in a space. Rooms with
high reverberation times are referred to as "live" and typically
possess echoes and other distortion effects. A high reverberation time
may result in reinforcement of existing sound pressure levels, creating
a perceived increase in the loudness of a sound. Reverberation time
is directly related to volume and material characteristics of a space.
Staff were interviewed to determine if any acoustic problems were noticeable,
and if so what the nature of these problems were. Number of residents
and daily routines were noted in order to determine their effect on
acoustic conditions. The objective measures of the acoustic conditions
were analyzed and measured compared to standard norms for residential
spaces. Causes of poor acoustic conditions were determined. Recommendations
were then made to ameliorate acoustic problems.
Results and Discussion
High reverberation times and sound pressure levels were observed in
almost all common spaces within the homes examined, especially in dining
and kitchen areas, and to a lesser extent, living rooms.
Sound pressure levels in the dining room ranged from 70dB(A) to 85dB(A),
with peak noise levels as loud as 100 dB(A). Typical residential sound
levels in a noisy home are in the 50 to 60 db range. Levels in the 80-85dB
range are more consistent with factories and shop floors. One hundred
decibels is as loud as a subway or power lawnmower (Stein et. al. 1986,
Figure 1 shows the reverberation times for each band of the audible
frequency spectrum, as well as the average reverberation time across
them. The average reverberation times for various spaces in the homes
examined concentrated between .73-.79 seconds. In the kitchen and dining
areas, higher frequencies have reverberation times between .93 and .96
seconds. This is particularly relevant, as higher frequency sounds are
more disturbing. Recommended reverberation times for clear and intelligible
speech for these room types and sizes are in the .4-.5 second range.
Figure 1. Reverberation Times by Room
Staff reported the presence of echoes in certain rooms, the ability
to hear noise from one room throughout the homes, as well as generally
loud noise levels during certain periods of the day.
The causes of acoustic problems stemmed from two sources, "signal"
and the design of the homes. Signal refers to the noise generated. The
homes have from 8 to 12 residents, plus four or more staff members present
at any given time. Activities that concentrate all of these people in
the same place such as eating or recreation are accompanied by other
noise sources such as rattling of dishes and pots, use of appliances,
television or radio noise and vocalizations and physical noises generated
by the residents and staff. The combination of these factors generates
much more noise than in a typical home. The amount of people alone could
accommodate for elevated noise levels. During instances of shouting,
screaming, or other behavioral outbursts, noise levels can rise high
above the norm.
The design of the physical environment contributes to the poor acoustic
conditions in several ways. Reverberation times are directly related
to the tendency of a building material to absorb sound. Generally, soft
and porous materials absorb more sound than hard and smooth materials.
Painted drywall, tile floors and other hard materials are often used
in group homes because of their low cost, ease of maintenance, durability,
and compliance with fire codes. Materials that would improve the acoustic
conditions such as carpeting, curtains and residential "acoustic
" ceilings are not usually used because they would result in higher
first costs and life cycle costs, as well as concerns over durability
and maintenance. Some of these materials cannot meet the fire codes
mandated for group homes. Without materials with good acoustic performance
to offset the poor materials, the problems of high reverberation times,
echoes and other distortions will persist. High reverberation times
also tend to make the perceived noise level higher, potentially aggravating
an already poor situation. Features that are intended to contribute
to the visual homelike quality of group homes may also adversely affect
the acoustic conditions. In one home, light wells in the ceiling of
the dining room contributed to a higher reverberation time as well as
distortion effects of sound in the room.
The physical layout of the group home can also have
a negative effect on acoustic conditions. Figure 2 shows the plan of
one of the proto-type group homes that was studied. This particular
plan has been used in over 40 homes in the Western New York area. High
noise areas such as the living, kitchen and dining areas are all concentrated
together. The bedroom hallways have nothing to isolate them from the
living area, thus noise is transmitted throughout the home. The concentration
of the activity areas tends to raise the perceived level of noise in
other parts of the home.
2. Plan of one standardized group home
factors combine to create a poor acoustic e environment, radically different
from a typical or "normal" residential environment. At best,
these acoustic conditions cause discomfort to both the residents and
staff. According to some definitions of normalization, comfort of the
residents is a key fact or in distinguishing group homes from institutions
(Wolfensberger, 1977). As the acoustic conditions get worse, increased
stress can result (Rubin and Elder, 1980). Group homes, in addition
to being residences, are also workplaces. Consideration must also be
given to the working conditions of the staff. Increased stress levels
among the staff can have an indirect, although unintentional impact
on residents' well being and quality of care. Not every group home will
possess these problems, but these findings do raise concerns.
Our findings indicate that there are several problems in the way some
group homes are currently designed and managed. Group home size, materials
with poor acoustic qualities, proximity of "high" noise areas,
and the way these spaces are used all contribute to poor acoustic conditions
in group homes. Dealing with these conditions means addressing some
or all of these problems, preferably in the design and planning stages.
Group home size should be smaller, to become more like "normal"
residences. High quality materials that both meet fire codes and provide
good acoustics should be purchased. Residential acoustic ceilings are
often attractive and useful ways to deal with this issue. High noise
areas, such as kitchen/dining rooms and living rooms should be separated
in homes that have larger populations, and measures taken to acoustically
insulate them from one another. High noise areas can also be split into
separate, smaller spaces to accommodate smaller user groups, reducing
Existing homes could also benefit from these suggestions. These homes
can be retrofitted with residential acoustic materials, particularly
ceilings. Curtains and draperies may also be appropriate in some homes.
As of this writing the staff from the home where specific design recommendations
were made to add an acoustic ceiling in the dining area report a noticeable
difference in the acoustic conditions. It remains to be seen whether
this change in acoustics has any effect on the number and nature of
behavioral incidents. There is however, no acoustic cure all. Poor acoustic
conditions must be evaluated and addressed on an individual basis to
determine the best approach.
Policy and management changes can also be made. Daily routine can change
to split up larger groups. One of the homes studied had two dining "shifts"
in order to reduce noise in the dining area. Residents that are prone
to disturbances can be placed with those that are less prone to this,
both to experience a standard of normalcy, and to reduce "domino"
effects. Location of activities that cause noise can also be evaluated
and changed based on the existing acoustic conditions. Quiet areas can
be designed for residents who are disturbed turbed by louder noise,
and wish to have some relief from it. Additional research needs to be
completed on this. Studies that examine the relationship between the
presence of particular frequencies or noise levels and behavioral incidents
would establish a better understanding of the effects of poor acoustics
in group homes. These studies need to be carefully designed in order
to control for other factors that affect resident behavioral outbursts.
Research and development of more durable and easily maintained acoustic
materials would provide additional options for retrofitting existing
homes. Educational materials and programs for staff, administration
and design professionals can also raise awareness about the issues involved,
and establish a foundation for more normalized acoustic environments.
Gibson, James J. The Senses Considered As Perceptual Systems. Houghton
Mifflin Company: Boston, MA. 1966
Robinson, Julia et. al.. Toward And Architectural Definition Of Normalization.
Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, University of Minnesota. 1984
Rubin A and Elder J. Building for People. Washington DC: National Bureau
of Standards. 1980
Stein B, Reynolds JS, McGuinness WJ, Mechanical and Electrical Systems
Equipment for Buildings. New York: John Wiley &Sons. 1986
Wolfensberger W. "The normalization Principle, and Some Major Implications
to Architectural Environmental Design." in Bedner M. Barrier Free
Environments. Stroudsburg, PA: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, Inc. 1977.
This study was conducted by the Applied Studies group at the Center
for Assistive Technology at the State University of New York at Buffalo,
which is funded through a grant by the Office of Mental Retardation
and Developmental Disabilities.
available for Free
Doors: Towards Universal
Architectural Barriers to Normalization: The Acoustic Environment of
homes: A Technical information
Manager for Home Modification Service to Older People
For Older People with Disabilities
Home Environments: Strategies for Aging in Place
Concept of Universal Design