A History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-46


Sound in dwellings

An inquiry made for the Building Research Station of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research

0. Introduction

0.1 This is the third inquiry made by the Wartime Social Survey into building problems for the Building Research Station. Other studies were of the “Heating of Dwellings” and the “Lighting of Dwellings”.

The purpose of the inquiry was to obtain certain information to supplement the experimental data available on the transmission of sound in buildings.

Subjects covered were:-

  1. 1. The incidence of sound nuisance between

    1. (a) adjoining houses

    2. (b) adjoining flats and flatted houses

  2. 2. The incidence of sound nuisance inside dwellings

    In both cases sounds are to be separated where possible into airborne sounds, (e.g. wireless and conversation), and Contact sounds, (e.g. footsteps, furniture movement and plumbing).

  3. 3. The incidence of street traffic sound nuisance and industrial sound nuisance - in this case the location of the dwelling is noted.

0.2 Method

The inquiry was made by questioning housewives and in some cases their husbands. Two sets of questions were asked. The first set was general and no sounds were mentioned by name as follows:-

  1. (a) Are there any sounds that you hear inside your house? What are they?

  2. (b) When do you hear them?

  3. (c) Do they trouble you?

  4. (d) Do they disturb your sleep?

  5. (e) If they don’t trouble you - did they when you first came to this house (flat)?

These questions served the purpose of introducing the subject to the housewife and of discovering to what extent consciousness of the sound nuisance existed in the minds of persons who were presented with the problem for the first time

The second series of questions were similar, except that they asked separately about specific sounds which had their origin in the home, which came from neighbour’s houses, and which came from outside. In these cases a question was asked about each sound, e.g. sound from the cistern, from people moving or from road traffic. Comparison of two sets of answers obtained by the general questions and the questions about specific sounds shows that the sounds complained of most frequently are the same in both cases, and that so is the order of the times which different sounds are mentioned. There is, however, a considerable difference between the numbers mentioning each sound in answer to the two types of questions.

The main report will discuss the results of the direct questions in which the name of the origin of the sound was mentioned. An appendix will discuss the results of the open question and will attempt to assess the significance of the difference between the two types of answer.


0.3 The Sample

Interviews were conducted with persons living in 2,017 small and medium size dwellings - of the kind likely to be built in large numbers after the war - chosen at random in the following way:-

The field workers were asked to choose streets in towns where persons earning up to £10 a week were likely to be found.

From the streets chosen they were to conduct interviews in houses, the numbers of which were determined beforehand by selection from a list of random numbers. The same procedure was followed in urban flats. There were 537 small or medium size flats and 1480 houses.

Interviews were made with 1,528 women and. 487 men on the assumption that there would be no important difference in the responses of the sexes - this was found to be so in almost all cases - the few exceptions were not sufficient to affect the validity of the general conclusions.

An attempt was made to discover whether or not night workers were more sensitive to sound than other people and interviews were made with 213 night workers who are included in the total above - this is a greater proportion of the total than would be found in a sample of the whole adult population. The results showed no difference of any importance between night workers and the rest and for this reason the sample has been treated as a homogeneous group throughout.

0.4 The Inquiry

The inquiry was entirely concerned with subjective attitudes and not with measurement of sound.

It was not possible to measure sound because this would have involved our field workers staying in the houses for at least 24 hours and making observations using an elaborate instrument.

The measurement of sound may be accomplished in a number of ways, but one example quoted from “The Problem of Noise” by F. C. Bartlett will illustrate the fact that the technical difficulties involved would have been considerable.

“A vibrating reed or tuning-fork is used as a standard source of sound.

The stimuli are conveyed to a telephone which is held near or against the observer’s ear. Then the standard sound is adjusted in intensity, by the variation of a calibrated potentiometer, until it appears to be just as loud as a noise heard by the other ear, and the noise is expressed in whatever units of intensity are being used to indicate the position of the standard sound on a scale of intensities”.

The answers to the questions were related to a number of objective factors which included the following:-

The economic status of the family

The type of dwelling

The design of dwelling in relation to rooms on the party wall. The age of the dwelling

The construction of flats

The location of the dwelling in relation to traffic, railway and industrial premises

Another factor considered was the length of time that people had lived in their houses, but it was not found that this influenced consciousness of sound from outside of from the neighbour’s house to any appreciable extent.

0.5 The Report

The report contains three main sections dealing with sounds which originate in the home, sounds which have their origin in the house of a neighbour, (meaning a house connected structurally with the one in which the interviews was being conducted) and sounds which had their origin outside the dwelling altogether.

The main questions were designed to find out what sounds were heard (or noticed), when they were heard, whether they troubled the hearer and whether they disturbed the sleep of the hearer.

The purpose of the report is to provide data about the incidence of sounds the approximate loudness of which can be estimated, so that in those cases where it is thought desirable, the building scientist can make provision to eliminate the nuisance.

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