Aural Ambiance - cocktail party

Aural Ambiance

technology profile - acoustics

Aural Ambiance

Strategies for containing, isolating and quieting sound to improve home acoustics

By STEVE HAAS, CEO and Principal Consultant
SH Acoustics

Aural Ambiance - cocktail party

YOUR NEW HOUSE LOOKS SPECTACULAR. The landscape is seductively illuminated and as your guests arrive, they walk into your foyer and are immediately taken with the layered lighting and beautiful furnishings. They instantly feel great and as they walk past the dining area and see the stemware and place settings — they can’t wait to see what’s on the menu. It’s going to be a great night!

As they enter the greatroom they again are overwhelmed at the vision that went into the design of the space. Huge window treatments that complement the height of the room, stunning décor that your lighting designer accentuates to reveal textures, depth and granularity.

As more guests arrive, you begin to notice that the volume level of the conversation is alarmingly rising to the point where each guest has to speak louder just to be heard from those in their immediate area. No one can hear the piano player you’ve hired for the evening and soon the room becomes a din of noise and you’re starting to freak out and see nothing but disaster written in the stars.

Oops. Forgot about sound, did we?


Quieting Indoor Noise Pollution plaster

You see, while most people who have a vision for their new home or major remodel focus on the visual in the design phase – color palettes, furnishings, lighting – most forget to consider the aural. How will my space sound when the house is filled with family and guests?

The art and science of acoustics is as important as any other methodology in today’s performance home. Architects and Acousticians working together in the planning stages can mitigate unwanted sound, contain sound within select spaces, and project sound into a space that is controlled across all frequency ranges. They can make any space sound great. Even a dinner party with 20 guests.

As with any collaboration, the homeowner’s vision is addressed in the discovery process.

Everything obviously begins with whether the client is even knowledgeable when it comes to acoustics. They like the grandeur of great rooms, but don’t think about the secondary aspects. They like the vision of vastness.

When I walk into a space or see blueprints, my mind thinks aurally – how is sound going to play into the design and how do we control that sound? How will the family be living and entertaining in those spaces? Because once you start to think about how sound is going to behave and travel throughout the various spaces in the residence, you can begin to look at containing, isolating and quieting sound.

general sound containment

Let’s start with sound containment as one of our pillars of acoustics. Sound containment, aka sound isolation, is about how sound spreads around the house and through walls, floors and ceilings. Sound will travel up stairwells and down hallways and into adjacent rooms and spaces. And then you have two-way sound, where noise from the kitchen will im¬pact the dining room and vice-versa, so just the types of materials that are used in the building process can have a huge impact on containing sound.

Creating the necessary containment is the first objective because once we know who is going to be bothered by potential noise – a home office next to the great room let’s say — we can then look to upgrade common partitions. Adding layers to the walls, utilizing resilient rubber clips for walls and hangers for the ceilings, and even implementing heavy solid-core doors with acoustical gasketing are the easiest solutions to begin with.

Installation of stretched fabric ceiling

extreme isolation

When you get into something more complicated, like having a bowling alley in the basement, and the client not wanting to hear it when they are directly above it in the kitchen poses more unique issues we have to deal with. This goes for all spaces that are incredibly loud due to a wide range of competing noise.

To begin with, the lanes themselves aren’t often physically separated from other social areas in the home. Right next to them is typically the bar area where they watch sports on TV, and they probably have a pool table and pinball machine right next to the alley. So tons of noise, including impact noise from the balls hitting the lanes.

The only way to deal with most of that noise is to both soak it up and isolate it. I would specify impact-resistant sound absorbing materials in or near the lane areas themselves to reduce the airborne sound energy of the ball dropping on the lanes, crashing into the pins and cheering when a strike is made!

Absorbing materials can also be used in connecting areas from the bowling alley to other occupied areas of the home. It is common to find open stairwells that go from the lower level recreation area up to the main living spaces; and with doors being undesirable, the only hope for attenuating the noise that reverberates up the stairwell would be the inclusion of acoustic plaster, stretched fabric panels and other highly aesthetic solutions so that the overall impact of noise is minimized.

For complete isolation, especially to spaces directly above the bowling alley, we would typically specify a spring-hung isolated ceiling because of the full-range of frequencies produced. In essence, creating a shock absorber to damp the noise and vibration of the ball drops and pinsetters. Isolation ceilings are engineered to create that buffer. And we would want to make sure the lanes are on isolation mounts. Although most lane manufacturers servicing high-end residences claim that their systems will isolate all vibration, our experience has proven that this is not the case. Also, certain pinsetters are extremely noisy as they rack up and align the pins, so creating enclosures around them goes a long way to harnessing unwanted noise.


quieting sound

Finally, we want to always control unwanted noise and vibration from the house itself. Quieting those aspects within and outside the home begins with anything with a motor so we can keep vibration to a minimum and not allow sound waves to permeate throughout the house.

HVAC, appliances and even wrapping and de-coupling plumbing pipes so you don’t hear water rushing or toilets flushing in sound sensitive spaces like bedrooms are all aspects to be considered in the design process. And obviously, thicker exterior façade layers, insulation and quality windows will control unwanted exterior noises like lawnmowers, unruly neighbors and street traffic.


final thoughts

Containing and quieting noise creates spaces that are truly enjoyable to live in daily, but also allows high-end audio systems to be listened to with exceptional quality — either as background sound or at performance levels. Even a live music practice or performance can resonate in a wonderful way in a balanced, quiet room. An acoustically treated space will be the perfect setting for conversation and music with your dinner guests enjoying the peace and tranquility that comes with the ambiance that acoustic design contributes to the project. Think of it as acoustic wellness.


SH Acoustics