technology profile – acoustics
Quieting Indoor Noise Pollution
the application of acoustical treatments is
essential for the overall comfort of homes.
By STEVE HAAS, CEO and Principal Consultant
Photos courtesy of Shope Reno Wharton, Star Silent, Armstrong Wall/Ceiling Solutions, and SH Acoustics.
WITHOUT A DOUBT, acoustics play an important role in the functionality of many different environments. Areas that typically come to mind are corporate offices, retail establishments, restaurants, concert halls, and home cinemas as well as those private spaces that you really want to control noise in, like her bathroom and the great room. And this is for good reason. These spaces demand proper acoustical engineering and design to provide comfortable working conditions, support relaxing dining conditions with friends and family, enhance the audio quality for entertainment enjoyment, and evoke a welcoming atmosphere to which people are attracted and frequently visit.
For many of these same reasons—and others—the application of acoustical treatments is essential for the overall comfort of homes. Without it, everything from productivity in a home office and intelligibility of conversations, to a good night’s sleep and better health and wellness can be affected.
As CEO and principal consultant of SH Acoustics, an acoustical design and engineering firm headquartered in Milford, Connecticut, I’ve been practicing the art and science of acoustics for more than three decades. Our firm has developed an innate sense of how sound should behave in a wide range of environments and how to implement solutions to enhance the acoustical signature of the space. This diverse base of knowledge and experience in the field, by having been on the design team for new and existing facilities for some of the top establishments in the world, such as Carnegie Hall, Jazz @ Lincoln Center and the Smithsonian Institution, as well as for the most discerning private clients in hundreds of luxury residences, has put our company on the map as a leader in the world of commercial and residential acoustics.
Like many technologies that inch their way from commercial settings into residential spaces, so did the practice of acoustical design and engineering. During college I participated in an independent study program where my senior thesis was designing and engineering the acoustics for a new recording studio facility on campus. With this experience under my belt, after graduation I landed a job with a commercial firm that focused on acoustic design for concert halls, Broadway theaters, houses of worship, lecture halls, museums, and other large venues. It didn’t take long, however, for the residential world to find me, as commercial clients started asking me to add acoustical treatments to or contain sound from their private home theaters.
The transition from commercial to residential was smooth and successful, so much so that I launched my own business, SH Acoustics, fulltime in early 2003. At the commercial firm, I was working for top-tier architects in some of the most challenging acoustical environments, comprised of hard, unforgiving surfaces and steel construction, so branching into residential wasn’t much of a stretch. I found that the principles of sound quality and sound containment definitely overlap commercial and residential applications. The technical concepts are similar; however, the application is not, mostly due to different types of materials and systems used in these two settings and different aesthetic objectives. Unlike commercial settings where it’s often acceptable to leave acoustical treatments exposed, in homes it’s crucial to integrate acoustical treatments visually with the room design. They remain discreet and inconspicuous, tucked behind acoustically transparent wall panels, mounted to the ceiling to replicate the look of standard drywall, and installed within the framework of a home.
Even the materials and methods of the construction in a large home can be similar to certain elements found in commercial environments, but usually they are quite unique and we have to automatically flip our mindsets back and forth between working on a large scale museum design on any given morning and then transitioning to the “precision car” model of someone’s home theater that same afternoon. Fortunately, this has become second nature to the SHA team, and designers and builders in either setting quickly realize that we are experts in both worlds.
Home theaters may receive the bulk of ‘acoustic TLC’ , but I’ll be quick to point out that other rooms of a home deserve just as much attention. Bedrooms, home offices, living rooms, great rooms, bathrooms and day spas . . . really any space that suffers from unwanted external noise or acoustical conditions that conflict with peace and serenity. Just as a noisy HVAC unit can distract you from the plot of a movie, it can be a literal nightmare when you’re trying to get a good night’s sleep.
A STRETCHED FABRIC CEILING REQURES EXPERIENCED INSTALLERS TO MAKE SURE IT LOOKS AND SOUNDS GREAT.
MANUFACTURERS SUCH AS ARMSTRONG OFFER BEAUTIFUL, SPECIALLY DESIGNED ACOUSTIC TREATMENTS FOR THE CEILING.
I recall one of our prior customers who mentioned an extreme sensitivity to noise while we were working on the family’s home theater. We discovered that the home had 37 individual air-handling units, each with a special filtering mechanism to mitigate allergens. When those units activated, the noise level was incredible. We were able to take our knowledge working with large HVAC systems in the commercial world and adapt it for use in this home, ultimately creating a home environment that was significantly more serene for the entire family, no matter if they were in the home theater, the bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen or anywhere else.
This is just one example of how sound can plague a household. Homes of all sizes and designs can be affected by excessive noise, lack of sound privacy, and an abundance of sound propagation. The one thing that is inevitable, though, is the larger the home, the more acoustic conflicts inherently exist.
Think about the things you hear at home on a daily basis: A delivery truck backing out of a neighbor’s driveway, the lawn maintenance crew working at the park across the street, barking dogs, the thump of the home gym treadmill at 5 a.m. They all add up to a lot of racket.
Spaces that have been engineered and designed with the proper acoustics can make a huge difference in people’s daily lives and improve their health and wellness. A bedroom immune to noise generated from traffic on a nearby highway, for example, promotes a better night’s sleep. Productivity soars in a home office when noise from an adjacent home gym doesn’t interfere. Add this to the fact that people are spending more time than ever at home — working, exercising, entertaining and even just escaping the rigors of the outside world — and whole-home noise mitigation through acoustical design and engineering has become a bigger part of SH Acoustics’ business. It’s something that shouldn’t be ignored. Everyone wants a healthier home, and it’s our goal to create the same customized control over sound buildup and noise emittance that people crave in so many other aspects of their home (lighting, thermal, etc.).
Often, the remedy necessitates a structural modification of the ceiling or walls. Most homes are built in a way that allows sound to easily transfer from one room to another. Sheetrock is attached directly to studs and joists, which allows sound to move from one material to the next, one room to another. Separating these surfaces through the addition of isolation clips and hangers mitigates the sound propagation.
Other ways to tame the propagation of sound throughout a home involve adding aesthetically pleasing sound absorption materials to a room or an open plan area: acoustical plaster on the ceiling surface, fabric on the walls, specialty ceiling tiles, and even furnishings. If it’s sound from outside that’s bothering you, thicker, double-pane windows and heavy draperies can help the issue.
No two homes, rooms or families are alike, nor many of the solutions are easy to implement after a home has been built, so involving an acoustician in the early phases of a home’s design is critical. While homeowners usually have an overall idea of how sensitive to noise they are and may even have some “hot-button” issues that they ask their architects to address, rarely will they or their designers realize all the potential sound conflicts that come from the given horizontal and vertical adjacencies within a home’s design. A residential acoustician’s initial role on a project should be to assess the home’s unique design and spatial layout to uncover all potential issues and then determine which of those the homeowner is concerned with and to what degree.
ADDING A CORE SOUND-ABSORBING MATERIAL TO A TWO-CHANNEL LISTENING ROOM CEILING IMPROVES THE OVERALL ACOUSTICS AND PRECISELY INTEGRATES LUGHTING, SPEAKERS, AND HVAC GRILLES.
ARMSTRONG ACOUSTICAL TREATMENTS LIKE THIS EYE-CATCHING WALL AND CEILING APPLICATION MAKE BOTH VISUAL AND AUDIBLE SENSE.
Once the issues have been clearly identified and conveyed by the homeowner to the design team, this serves as a roadmap to begin upgrading the sound isolating properties of relevant walls, floors, ceiling, doors, windows and other partitions, “taming” the excessive reverberation in large spaces, and quieting the noise and vibration levels of equipment serving the home. The residential acoustician is proactive in leading this effort with the architects, engineers and interior designers – always keeping the goal of optimum blending of aesthetics, acoustics and technology at the forefront of the process.
Although any space can benefit from a professionally engineered and applied acoustical design, the bathroom and kitchen often are two big offenders. Set apart and closed off from the main living areas of the house, bathroom noise from a hair dryer or electric toothbrush is fairly contained and may be minimized with the addition of a solid, well-sealed door. But just wait until the whirlpool jets kick in, the toilet flushes, or the shower starts. Occupants in rooms located above or adjacent to the bathroom can get a real earful. No one likes to wake to the sound of water rushing through the plumbing or a toilet flushing at the crack of dawn. Nor do most people want the whirlpool tub rattling the rafters while watching an epic movie.
How does this happen? Any plumbing or mechanical equipment that touches the floor, ceiling or wall studs can cause the framework to vibrate, which creates audible noise. The solution involves working with a professional team who will “decouple” the attachment points of pipes from the studs by installing special resilient isolators to keep the pipes from making hard contact with the framing or other parts of the wall or ceiling. Wrapping the pipes in flexible barrier material such as a mass-loaded vinyl “lagging” from companies like Kinetics Noise Control and Soundseal also helps suppress the noise that often radiates from the pipes.
As for the kitchen and its adjacent breakfast nook, great room and dining area, noise can be even more problematic. Dinner parties just aren’t the same when you have to shout to be heard over the din of clanging pots and pans or a running dishwasher. Kitchen appliances and utensils all make noise; there’s no way around that. Exacerbating the effect are a kitchen’s hard surfaces. Per the law of physics, when sound travels and hits a hard, non-absorptive material, like a granite countertop, marble flooring, or stainless-steel appliance, it bounces off harshly, hits another surface, and another and another. Called “reverberation,” all this bouncing around amplifies the sound, making your kitchen seem even noisier.
Thankfully, there are ways to quiet the chaos through the addition of acoustical materials. Given the limited space available on kitchen walls, the best place to treat a kitchen acoustically is on the ceiling. A special field-applied sound-absorbing plaster ceiling can be installed in lieu of a standard drywall finish. This specially engineered solution from companies like Pyrok, Baswa and Armstrong looks like drywall but is “micro-porous,” to absorb rather than reflect sound. Heavy yet stylish doors with tight seals can help contain noises in a kitchen from adjacent spaces as can facing the kitchen cabinets with elegant micro-perforated wood panels from Decoustics, Armstrong and others. Similar perforated wood or stretched-membrane panels (Clipso and Newmat are two membrane systems that work well), which are both moisture-resistant and easy to clean, can be intentionally designed for areas of a kitchen ceiling, as well.
From kitchens and bathrooms, to home theaters, bedrooms, home gyms, and more, noise impacts every space of our homes and every aspect of our lives. To ensure that a home is the most comfortable, healthy, and enjoyable it can be, it’s crucial that its acoustical properties be addressed. You wouldn’t dream of putting mediocre lighting or unfashionable furnishings in a luxury home; nor should you skimp on the quality of its acoustics.
Stay tuned for more information about the benefits provided by proper acoustical design as my team will be exploring methods for making every room of the house sound its very best in future articles here at Technology Designer Magazine.