Author: Julie Ford, Director of Project Management, CBRE Healthcare

With more than 35 years in the design, facility management and project management industry, I’ve observed a variety of significant project challenges and changes over the years within the healthcare sector. One of the most frequent design challenges is around the transference of noise. This can occur between clinic exam rooms, exam spaces, corridors, nurse stations, and within public spaces. Noise complaints are a constant problem, whether in an acute or long-term care facility, making it challenging for healthcare organizations to maintain Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance.

The noise issue is not limited to the method of construction, however, it is consistent among traditional stick-build construction, full demountable partition solutions and open office environments with furniture partitions. Many of these construction methods require more detailed engineering solutions than others, but one thing remains the same: they still have not completely solved the noise problem. Even with the addition of traditional investments such as, higher rated wall insulation, putty pads in electrical boxes and HVAC boots on duct vents noise is still a big issue.

Sound Masking Solutions

Installing a sound masking system will significantly help reduce undesired noise. There are many options on the market that have directional installation methods, such as:

  • White noise systems, which provide a downward, directional solution by producing noise from a speaker in the room. 
  • Pink noise, which is typically installed above the ceiling and produces a bandwidth frequency sound above the plenum to reduce transference of noise through the ceiling or vents.
  • Speech Privacy Systems, similar to Pink noise, it’s installed above the ceiling but specifically targets human speech bandwidths to diffuse and reduce noise and make speech unintelligible.

Speech Privacy Systems

I recently used the Speech Privacy Systems sound masking method on a healthcare project in Chicago. The idea came from our partner Mesa Electronics who patented a sound curve technology that is specifically designed to mimic the human voice spectrum. The noise does not mask sound but muffles the human voice, making speech less intelligible. In addition to noise reduction, the Speech Privacy Systems has a user interface software called the VoiceArrest PM Software that allows users to easily see, access and control each loudspeaker (or group of speakers) via a graphical interface. It integrates the design, collaboration and operational stages of sound masking by creating a centralized control panel that shows the speaker locations, wiring schematic and office layout. Think building automation systems, but for sound masking. There are many other sound masking products on the market but some of the differing factors to consider are:

  • The number of devices required?
  • How many controllers are needed?
  • How are they connected, either individually wired of daisy chained?
  • How many devises can be on one system controller?
  • How easy are system adjustments daily?
  • What device controls the system?
  • Where are controls housed, either IDF closet or within the department
  • What does it cost?

Successful Application

Our team deployed the Speech Privacy Systems in a 15,000-square-foot orthopedic suite with 100% demountable partitions in all areas, including: the clinic, toilets, nurse stations, conference rooms, training areas, waiting rooms, patient consultation rooms, PT rehab gym and offices. During the initial stages of strategic planning for the project, noise issues were our top concern. Ultimately, as a result of the successful implementation of the Speech Privacy Systems, there was no noise transference between any working areas.

The only space with slight noise dissemination was the PT gym, due to the stereo system installed to play music. The issue was resolved by identifying the maximum sound level on the music system that could be played in the gym without hearing it in the offices, and also by implementing operational parameters around the use of the sound system going forward.

Additionally, the client asked the vendor to return to the site two months after the stereo system was installed to rebalance the system and turn down the diffusing effect in some areas because it was too quiet. The system is easily adjustable and the vendor trained the staff on how to reprogram it through a tablet in the future.

Figure 1: Additional Design Elements for Sound Masking
If you are aiming for total space privacy, consider implementing the following design elements in addition to a sound masking system:

HC Design Elements_FINAL 6 2019


By utilizing the right sound masking system, you can solve an inherent healthcare problem that in the past, would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to unsuccessfully rectify through design and construction alone. However, there is a price associated with everything; if you discuss potential options with your team and client early in the project, you can plan accordingly and adjust the budget as appropriate. Based on the past experience, addition sound masking systems range from $0.80 to $1.5 dollars per square foot. This is a small budget impact with high patient and client satisfaction rating.

To learn more about the value that CBRE Project Management can bring to your construction project, and why Julie recommends including some type of sound making system on all healthcare projects, please contact [email protected].

CBRE Project Management

Click here for additional thought leadership and resources