Publications | Architectural Barriers To Normalization: The Acoustic Environment of Group Homes


Scott 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, pg. 1242).

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 chart showing the Reverberation  times

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.

Figure 2 showing Floor plan drawing of a standardize group home

Figure 2. Plan of one standardized group home

These 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 noise levels.

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. pg. 135

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.

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