Home sound insulation may not be the first thing on your mind when you're thinking about the design of your home.
You’ll be spending lots of time and energy on how your home looks. I want to encourage you to consider how your home sounds as well. There’s no point having a home that looks fantastic if the experience of living in it is spoiled by poor home sound insulation.
Sound is, of course, invisible and much of the time we are not consciously aware of it. When’s the last time you thought about the sounds of the spaces you spend time in?
Let’s start by considering the sound in the environment around our homes.
Unwanted outdoor noise pollution
Is your home in a location where there are any undesirable noises such as a busy road, train track or flight path? Maybe there's a neighbour that has music or the TV on loud at hours that don't suit you.
Any barking dogs, roosters or manufacturing plants nearby?
I have lived in homes that have had each of these shortcomings. Personally I find any noise that’s present nearly all the time harder to deal with than intermittent noise. A road that’s busy all the time is a constant drone that’s hard to get away from, although this does tend to calm down at night.
My experiences with noise pollution
Several experiences come to mind...
When I was in college I lived in a student house that had a double whammy of noise from outside. My bedroom was at the front of the house which fronted onto a busy road. I noticed that the sound really travelled up to my window which was on the third floor. I guess the sound reflected off the road and off the buildings opposite. The good news is that this noise calmed down at night and didn't keep me awake.
It was also a terraced house and the next door neighbours played music late into the night. Now, I love a dance party but the music wasn't to my taste. The solution when it got too much was to sleep in the living room which was quieter.
I lived in London for a year or so in South London. Most of London is under the flight path for Heathrow at some time or other. Airplanes are loud but it's an intermittent noise.
In Canada we lived right next to a train track. And I mean right beside the track. It ran just behind the back garden and Canadian cargo trains are loooooooong. The trains only came by a few times a day and in the end we got to a point where we didn't really notice them.
Home sound insulation tips to deal with outdoor noise
Here's a few home design ideas for dealing with outdoor noise.
Try to orientate rooms that need to be quiet away from the side of the home that faces the noise.
Specify triple rather than double glazing and ask your window provider about the sound insulation qualities of the insulation and fittings of the window as well as the panes of glass.
Include provision in your plans (ie extra support around the window openings) to hang thick curtains or install solid wood shutters.
If possible include a wall or bushy plants in your garden to absorb noise. Interestingly a wall by a road has the effect of directing the sound up. If there’s a wall or hedge at garden level, the downstairs room is likely to be quieter than upstairs.
Home sound insulation - sound inside your home
Let’s move inside now to consider the distinctive sounds of the spaces and rooms that we live in.
The home sound insulation quality of your home is a direct result of the design of the spaces and the interior finishes and furnishings.
If a room needs to feel cosy, it will only be cosy if it also sounds cosy whereas the atmosphere of a playroom might benefit from sounding more vibrant.
Noise generated inside your home
First, let's think about the sources of noise inside your home:
Appliances in the kitchen and laundry.
Pumps that make your power shower possible. These can be really noisy.
Bathrooms can be noisy. Showering and (how do I put this delicately) peeing can both be quite loud, particularly in the room below if there's not much sound insulation in the floor and ceiling separating the two rooms.
People and pets. For both kids and adults, play time and quiet time don't mix. Everyone in the family needs to feel comfortable about where they can play and shout and where they can go for a bit of peace and quiet.
Home sound insulation tips to deal with indoor noise
There are two main ways of dealing with sound inside your home. Firstly by being smart about the layout of your home and secondly by using some home sound insulation design touches.
Floor plan layout and good home sound insulation
Here are a few things to consider about how the layout of your home contributes to your home sound insulation.
The location of different rooms around the home is also an important consideration. Kitchens, bathrooms and laundries can be noisy. Where are the noisy spaces in your home situated in relation to the places you want to be quiet and peaceful? Don't forget to consider the adjacencies between floors as well as spaces next to each other on the same floor. This can be a challenge, particularly with bathrooms since there is often more than one bathroom upstairs.
If possible locate pumps away from the living space. If possible put the pumps outside in a separate 'pump house'. This can take the form of a small outdoor cupboard right beside your home. If the pumps do need to be inside, specify that the cupboard that houses them is insulated with one of the sound insulation products available to keep the noise in. and yet
Large rooms with uninterrupted long flat and hard surfaces will tend to be noisier than small rooms with nooks and crannies and lots of soft furnishings (carpets or rugs, upholstered furniture and curtains). This means that open plan kitchen dining spaces are the most at risk of having a poor home sound insulation. This is due to their size and the fact that often most of the surfaces are hard.
Talk to your contractor or architect or do some research for yourself on home sound insulation products for walls and floors.
Other design touches for good home sound insulation
Here are some home sound insulation design touches that you can use to solve your sound problems.
Adding a textured paint finish on your ceiling or walls will help dissipate sounds and make a space quieter. There are also sound absorbing ceiling tiles or wall panels available.
Adding soft furnishings (carpets or rugs, upholstered furniture and curtains) will help absorb sounds and give you a bit more peace and quiet.
Adding furnishings that break up wall surfaces will dissipate and absorb sound. Try bookshelves or room dividers.
‘Soft’ artwork helps absorb sound. Try canvas paintings that are stretched over the batons rather than framed in a glass frame. You could even go for lining your walls with fabric.
Use solid doors and insulate around the door. Solid doors absorb sound much better than hollow core doors. Sound also creeps through the air around doors so insulating the gaps and the sill will help cut down noise.
Buy quiet appliances. Look out for the Quiet Mark.
Cries of those you love
With all this home sound insulation remember that it's important you can hear your children or pets if they become distressed during the night!
Enhancing the soundscape in your home
Once you've got all your home sound insulation in place, here’s a few other ideas for how to enrich the soundscape of your home.
Pleasant sounds from the outdoors
Not all outside noise is bad. What are the types of sounds that make the environment more pleasurable? How about birdsong, the sound of lapping water or the crash of waves, the wind rustling the trees or children playing?
My experiences with good outdoor sounds
I grew up two doors away from a tennis club. The neighbourhood church was also close by. The ‘pock’ sound of ball meeting string and the laughter or cries of frustration of the players, many of whose voices I would recognise, occasionally interrupted by the call of wood pigeons or church bells marking the time, peeling or ringing out a hymn were the sounds that drifted in through my bedroom window and are just as much part of my childhood home as the house itself.
Here's a few other suggestions.
You either love them or hate them. If you fall into the first category wind chimes make a breeze that much more charming.
If you don't have a babbling brook or ocean near your house, how about a water feature to provide some natural background noise?
Pleasant sounds indoors
Here's a few ideas for enriching your indoor sound experience.
If you’re shopping around for an alarm, ask to hear a sample of how the alarm communicates with you, the householder. Of course if there’s an intruder in your home, you want the alarm to sound as loud an offensive as possible. However, as the rightful inhabitant why not choose an alarm that gives you a pleasant sonic experience.
We use our alarm at night. When we set it on night mode and turn it off in the morning, it makes and unpleasant beeping sound, loud enough to disturb anyone who is dozing upstairs which goes on for an unnecessarily long length of time. Very annoying. Why can’t we just have a soft beep to indicate that the alarm has been set or de-activated? Alarm manufacturers of the world take note!
We've already talked about the role that solid doors have to play in home sound insulation, but what about the sound that the door itself makes when it's closed?
Think about car doors. Believe it or not car manufacturers spend time and money engineering how the doors sound when they are closed.
The same goes for the doors in your house. Solid doors closing into solid walls is always going to sound more solid and reassuring than hollow doors closing onto hollow walls. Whatever your budget, talk to your builder or architect about what can be done to make closing the doors feel and sound solid.
When you’re planning your lighting check that the light fittings don’t buzz. If you’re planning to have dimmable lights check that there’s no noise at different levels of lighting.
Shop around for a door bell that you like the sound off. There must be ones that allow a sound or music to be recorded.
Soft closing cupboards avoid unnecessary banging and crashing in the kitchen, laundry, bathroom and closet. Soft closing cupboards are now very affordable with absorbers available that work with doors hung on standard hinges.
Lining your drawers and cupboards with a rubber, felt or leather mat (or any other material appropriate) means that the noise is absorbed when you put glasses or pots and pans away. This may be taking things too far, but it comes as an option for many kitchens.
A well built home shouldn’t have any creaks, but I read once about a client that requested a creaky floorboard and a squeaky hinge be introduced into the design just to give the home a sense of character!
There’s an interactive science museum in Belfast that we go to occasionally where walking up the stairs and along some of the corridors is a sonic journey. The technology behind this is made by OM Interactive. Image a sort of light beam instrument on the stairs, or in the shower, or in the WC! I like the idea of our homes becoming more playful and interactive and for me this mix of sound and light appeals.
Hotels and other businesses spend time thinking about the atmosphere in the public areas and music is a part of that. How about creating a soundtrack for your home? Something different from just having the radio playing in the background that contributes to the mood you’d like to create. You could try a mixture of different music and maybe even sounds like whalesong or rain forest. You could even use an agency such as Open Ear or The Sound Agency.
Here's a few reader stories for you where home sound insulation fell by the wayside.
Jane's kitchen cacophony
Jane is a mother of 6 and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to remodel their kitchen space to include a generous kitchen and big family dining space. The space worked brilliantly with a highly functional kitchen and plenty of space for a big table without anything feeling crowded. The new room had floor to ceiling glazing on two sides offering lovely views onto the garden, tiled floors and a flat, uniform ceiling.
The one problem – when the family were all in for dinner chatting away, Jane and her husband could hardly hear themselves think. They had a home sound insulation nightmare on their hands. Their beautiful room was designed with no regard for the effect that the space design and finishes would have on the sound of the space.
Jane had to call in an acoustic engineer to sort out the issue. The solution was several sound absorption boxes placed at strategic points on the ceiling, several pieces of fabric stretched over batons to hang on the walls (these actually looked pretty artistic) and installing some translucent blinds in front of the windows.
Sarah's whispering walls
Sarah had a beautiful curved eating niche built as an addition to the family kitchen. Immediately as the family first sat down to their first meal in the space the problem made itself obvious. Two seats at the table had everything they said echoed right back at them.
Drawing the curtains solves the problem, but that’s not practical during the day and besides would obscure the view to the garden.
Most of the time, they just avoid sitting in the two affected seats.
In conclusion, when you’re designing your new home, ask yourself and the professionals that are working with you, ‘What will this space sound like?’, 'Is there enough home sound insulation', and ‘Are there any design touches we can add to enhance the sound experience?’