By Dennis McCloskey

Everyone agrees that our home is our castle, but these days many would also admit that our modern-day dwellings have become acoustical nightmares, with a veritable orchestra of sound emanating from ice-making fridges, noisy dishwashers atop ceramic tiles, and dishware jangling on hard, shiny quartz islands and countertops. And that’s just in the kitchen! Consider the hardwood floors, wooden blinds and painted walls in the rest of the house that contribute to what noted home building and design blogger Mike Hetherman terms the “hardening of our homes.”

Mark Kranenburg is a builder of quality, custom, eco-responsible and creative homes in the Ottawa region and he says there is no way to stop noise from entering or escaping a home. That’s the bad news. The good news is that noise can be reduced. Kranenburg is the 32-year-old president of Greenmark Builders, who started as an apprentice carpenter at age 18 and worked his way up to managing home builds for a custom builder at age 23 before forming his own company in 2010. He says there are many ways to quieten, muffle or partially soundproof a home, from using sound-absorbing materials to implementing creative construction methods that can soften a home’s acoustics. And he agrees that one of the goals of a house builder, architect or interior designer should be to initially create a home that’s quiet, and not go into a finished structure and then start to think of reducing noise.

Among the many noise-reducing solutions Kranenburg suggests is to start with the insulation, such as Roxul Safe ‘n’ Sound stone wool insulation that’s used in interior wall partitions, as well as ceiling and floor applications for residential wood and steel construction. This non-combustible, lightweight product has excellent acoustical dampening properties. “Other proven ways to reduce noise pollution include the use of double-layer drywall and stagger the joints; install solid core doors (not hollow core) and double- or triple-glaze windows.”

Kranenburg says sound bounces easily off ceilings “and there’s nothing worse than a large square box ceiling.” He is partial to inverted or recessed tray ceilings.

“If you’re really serious about reducing the noise in a house, consider the caulking,” Kranenburg notes. “There is a product called Green Glue Noiseproofing Compound that is very effective in minimizing sound.”

Billed as one of the top sound-proofing solutions in the world by its maker, Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics of Granville, NY, Green Glue (distributed in Canada by OHBA member Morin Bros. Building Supplies Inc. of Ottawa, among others) is a viscoelastic compound and sealant that can be quickly and easily applied between two sheets of drywall, plywood or any commonly used building material. Studies have shown that it effectively eliminates up to 90% of noise transfer from one room to another.

A certified Insulating Concrete Forms (ICF) builder, Kranenburg says an ICF home is the quietest because there is no bond break. “There’s no place for sound to penetrate, so outside noises are eliminated,” he says. Some ICF builders say that in the past four years these forms, or moulds—which have built-in insulation for accepting reinforced oncrete—are fast becoming the mainstream preferred building product worldwide. But Kranenburg doesn’t see a widespread acceptance in Canada for ICF homes to date, despite the comfort (nothing blows through reinforced concrete), the flexibility in design, energy efficiency and resulting quietness.

Quiet by design

When Josie Abate of Woodbridge founded Ambience Design Group in 1987, the objective for her and her design team was to analyze their clients’ goals, transform those goals into reality and give the client peace of mind along the way. That raison d’être is still her company’s philosophy, and the part about “peace of mind” is ever more important in our increasingly modern (and noisy) world.

The owner of the multidisciplinary design firm believes it is important to know the psychological and physiological needs of the client, including the family structure, habits, entertaining patterns and lifestyle. Abate believes the designer, more than anyone else involved in the creation of a house, knows better the inner workings of the client’s mind as to how the house will be utilized. “We interview the client extensively and as a result we know factually and intuitively what their needs are and we focus on that.”

Abate says there are many decorative ways to decrease sound and block unwanted noise. Her solutions range from practical solutions, such as upholstering walls, to visual applications, such as using a ‘quiet’ paint—whose colours and matte finish inspires more reflective and tranquil moments. Abate adds that upholstered walls are in vogue these days and she is currently working on a home theatre project that incorporates cloth material on the walls. “I realize that some people don’t like wallpaper, but more often than not they are thinking of old-style wallpaper and the sometimes gaudy design patterns,” she says. “Wallpaper needs to be better marketed because today’s cloth and textured wallpaper is in again, and it’s a noise absorber!”

“Certain materials used in the construction of the home can add to the intensity of the noise,” Abate continues. “Hard, stone floor surfaces can be the worst offenders, especially when people do not remove their shoes.” She adds that wooden floors are very much in vogue because it’s a natural material and not as noisy as a stone floor. While wood isn’t exactly a sound-muffler, hardwood-style cork flooring is great for sound absorption. Abate also says leather floors are in fashion, particularly buffalo leather since it is durable and thick. Whatever the flooring, she often suggests that clients place area rugs in some large rooms, adding that some patterns are very beautiful and give a room a contemporary look. It has long been known that carpets soak up the sound, and thicker rugs are more effective at reducing noises that bounce off hard surfaces. Rugs and carpets can also be coupled with sound-absorbing padding.

Abate says the kitchen is often the noisiest room in the house, owing in part to popular floorings like ceramic tile and natural stone, but she maintains a wood floor is more forgiving if a dish or glass is dropped. Also, solid wood has warmth and charm and never goes out of style. Even for the kitchen floor, Abate and her design team have suggested that a client place low pile, hand-woven Persian rugs. “They are easy to clean, resilient, absorb sound and have long-lasting qualities.”

Abate concurs with the unwritten rule that 25% of a room should have some kind of absorbing material, even if it means decorating with fabric furniture rather than leather. Paul M. J. Suchecki, in an article titled “Quiet Your Home,” writes that we can take lessons from the change in sound when furniture is placed in a room. “By putting in couches, chairs and rugs in an otherwise empty room, you’ve added acoustical dampening,” Suchecki notes.

Abate recommends sound-deadening drapes in a living room, especially if the room has an open, high ceiling that makes noise echo. Some experts suggest that heavy drape materials such as velvets and wools are best for sound absorption and if there’s a mass-loaded vinyl layer, even better. A recent breakthrough in sound-absorbing draperies came from EMPA (an interdisciplinary research and services institution for material sciences and technology development with two locations in Switzerland) and a Swiss textile designer, Annette Douglas, who created a gauzy material that allows some natural light but absorbs sound, thanks to its modified polyester design.

Whether you are a builder, interior designer or architect, it’s important to remember that a home is a person’s sanctuary, and as such, should be designed and built as a peaceful place. If you listen closely to your clients’ wishes for a quieter home, the result will be good for their hearing and health…not to mention your bottom line.

How To Cut Noise Pollution In a Home

Install Acoustic panels: Coming in a range of colours and fabrics, 1-inch-thick acoustic panels are easy to install and work with almost any decor.

Hang Sound-Absorbing Art: Artwork printed on fabric, tapestries and canvas photos absorb sound.

Cork or Concrete Flooring: Concrete and cork are among the best materials for sound absorption.

Furnishings: Plush, upholstered furniture accessorized with soft pillows and throws.

Carpets, Rugs and Padding: Cut-pile carpeting tests better for absorbing sound than loop pile carpeting.  Foam rubber backing also helps to absorb sound.

Floating Hardwood: This type of flooring installation includes a gap between the subfloor and the actual floors which effectively diminishes sound.

Draperies: Fabric window coverings and curtains absorb and block sound.  The heavier the fabric, the better.

Triple-Pane Windows: Offer a large reduction in noise from single- and double-pane windows.

Solid Wood Core Doors: The heavy mass of solid doors will dampen sounds.

Reduce the Number of Hard Surfaces: Use upholstered ottomans for sofa tables instead of glass or metal.

No Pocket Doors: They create a wall cavity that can’t be insulated.