When Apple opened its new Palo Alto store last month, everyone was impressed – for about a minute. The new store is an architectural vision, 5,000 square feet of glass walls, a curved glass roof, and Italian stone hand-selected by Steve Jobs himself before his death in 2011. The store is a spectacular sight, especially at night when it is flooded by strategically engineered lighting.
Unfortunately, this vision in glass and stone was designed and built with no noise absorption whatsoever in place. In fact, the noise from reverberant sound bouncing off all these hard surfaces is so hard on the ears, customers are visiting once and fleeing after a short time. Apple’s $15 million echo chamber is been described as “earsplitting,” “almost unbearably noisy,” and “one big noise machine.”
One visitor told her husband she would not return to the store after spending just a few minutes – she’s afraid of suffering hearing loss.
Are people exaggerating about the noise? Well, in his own blog “Minding the (Apple) Store,” Former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée wrote that a visit to the store shortly after its opening did not have the impact he was hoping for. Gassée said the new store is indeed big, bold, elegant, but almost unbearably noisy.
The quintessential testament to Apple’s success, painstakingly designed down to the most minute detail and meant to be a prototype for future stores, is an acoustical failure. Already people who have visited the store are refusing to return because of the high noise levels caused by sound reverberating off its entirely hard surfaces with no noise absorption whatsoever.
After his initial visit, Gassée returned a few days later with a decibel-measuring app he uploaded to his iPhone, and was stunned by findings. The sounds within the store measured above 75 decibels – five decibels higher than the 70dB threshold the EPA says can cause hearing damage from long term exposure.
Naturally the main question floating inside and outside the Apple organization at the moment is, “what were they thinking?”
Gassée even writes that the sound levels in the store are not just annoying - they're dangerously high. Employees subjected to this level of noise for eight hours per day are at an elevated risk of hearing damage and loss, and for every hour beyond eight that someone remains in the store, the risk increases exponentially.
It’s not the first time that Apple ended up looking as if it didn’t think things through thoroughly, although for the most part the company is known for its meticulous attention to detail; Apple generally enjoys a reputation of striving for excellence.
Nor is Apple the first company to blow a great architectural design by giving no forethought to acoustics either, especially in recent years when hard surfaces and minimalist design have become highly desirable.
But it has to be discouraging that the reverberant noise and deafening acoustics for which hard surface structures are notorious slipped past the architects and contractors, and came as a total surprise to everyone only after the store opened.
One company insider was quoted as saying, “It’s bad for customers, it’s bad for the staff, it’s bad for business, and it’s bad for the brand. Apple appears to be more concerned with style than with substance!”
Gassée likened the failure to the recent Apple Maps catastrophe.
“An obvious problem ignored,” he said.
When all was said and done, Gassée found that the inside of the store measured a full 10 decibels louder than the street traffic noise outside on high-trafficked University Avenue. When you’re talking decibels, sound pressure doubles for every three decibel increase in the environment. That said, a 10 decibel increase makes the noise inside the Apple Store about 10 times louder than the street noise outside.
It should be interesting to see who is held to the proverbial fire over this blunder, but to their credit, Apple is studying the noise problem and working on an answer. And although there’s no telling how long it might take, there’s little doubt the company will resolve the issue.
They’re Apple. They can do anything, right?
You can’t help but feel for Mumbai. The commercial and entertainment capital of India, it ranks as a top 10 world commerce leader in terms of global financial flow, generating five percent of India’s GDP. Mumbai is responsible for 25 percent of all of India’s industrial output, 70 percent of the country’s maritime trade, and 70 percent of India’s economic capital transactions.
But Mumbai's noise pollution is eviscerating its citizen's quality of life and challenging the future of its children.
One of the world’s noisiest cities, Mumbai's din is so severe that the future health of its residents is in question. In fact. levels of noise and air pollution in Mumbai are through the roof and rising, and the noise is having a marked effect on the sleep patterns and health of the people who live there.
In residential areas, recent studies show that noise levels have steadily increased both during the daytime and at night over the past five years. The city’s established “silence zones” are never silent, and noise levels measure in at 63 decibels (daytime) and 78 decibels (night time) – the allowed limits are 50 and 40 decibels respectively. In Mumbai, areas within 100 meters (328 feet) of schools, hospitals, shrines and courts are designated as silence zones.
Mumbai has 1,112 designated silence zones that are routinely disregarded. In fact, noise in these silence zones has steadily increased over the past four years, and officials even admit that most people are unaware that silence zones exist in their communities.
According to Mumbian environmentalists and public health officials, its residents are unaware of the health hazards they face from the never-ending exposure to high decibel sounds. Heart attack rates are steadily increasing, and cardiologists blame Mumbai’s dismal noise pollution stats for triggering the stress hormones that increase blood pressure and raise the risk of heart attack significantly. Mumbai’s high air pollution rates are exacerbating the health effects of the city’s noise, which leaves many Mumbian health officials to question what it will take to effectively address this burgeoning risk to the health and welfare of the general population.
Mumbai has some serious obstacles to overcome if it is to ever address its noise pollution problem in any meaningful way. Its citizens are largely unaware of the fact that noise can cause them harm, although the Indian government does consider it a serious problem. By aligning itself with the World Health Organization, the Indian government has tried to establish standard noise caps for residential areas (55 decibels), commercial areas (65 decibels) and industrial areas (75 decibels). However these noise caps are violated daily and offenders are almost never admonished.
In Mumbai, like most of India’s cities, traffic noise is the primary cause of noise pollution, and there is no escape from the 24/7 cacophony of traffic-related sound, from construction to horns hinking incessantly, night and day with no relief. In 2008, to honor World Health Day, Mumbai held a "No Honking Day" – by all accounts a remarkable feat made possible only because of the Mumbai traffic police’s unwaivering efforts to enforce the ban. Mumbai’s citizens had a taste of what it was like to experience a day without the unwelcome blaring of auto horns filling every waking minute. For the average Mumbai citizenm, the respite was nice but only impeded one of the many sources of Mumbai's daily noise monsters.
Predictions were that “No Honking Day” would lead to countless accidents and chaos among both motorists and pedestrians, although no problems occurred. Still, the one day moratorium didn't scratch the surface of Mumbai’s very serious noise pollution problem.
Mumbai and Delhi, two of India’s most important metro areas, are also two of the world’s noisiest places, and the world in general is a dangerously noisy place. Many organizations taking on the world’s noise pollution problems blame governments for waiting too long and not taking the health risks of noise pollution seriously. After all, just 40 years ago most of the world’s inhabitants had some place to go to escape noise levels that were a risk to their hearing and health. Today, the earth's quiet spaces are growing smaller and more elusive from one year to the next.
As long as governments are in bed with corporations, the quality of life for Mumbai’s citizens as well as the citizens of most of the world’s major metropolitan areas will never be a priority. Where is the follow-up to environmental reports telling us about the dangers of the noise to which ordinary citizens are subjected? When will the well-being of the people of Mumbai matter to its government more than the economic impact of regulatory compliance?
There’s got to be a Nobel Prize in it for the person who comes up with the answer. In the meantime, the children of Mumbai, Delhi, Buenos Aires, Cairo, and New York City (to name just a few of the world’s noisiest cities) are facing a future of hearing damage and loss, impeded learning, sleep disorders, elevated blood pressure and heart disease without ever having known any other life but one filled with noise.