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6 tips to improve home acoustics

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | March 31, 2014

Aging sometimes brings some hearing loss with it, but don't be too quick to assume you need a hearing aid if you never seem to hear your spouse asking you to take out the trash. It could be a matter of selective hearing, maybe, but poor home acoustics could just as easily be the culprit.

In our quest to keep up with the latest trends and please potential home buyers, we demand our designers blatantly ignore the cardinal rule that dictates "form follows function." Many popular designs don't function well at all. Case in point: we've designed good acoustics out of our homes.

Why today's homes are noisy

You may be able to wall yourself off from outdoor noise with more insulation or double- and triple-glazed replacement windows, but what can you do about the noise you generate inside your home? According to Mike Hetherman, a partner in Willis, a North American supplier of building materials, we have created an indoor home environment where sound and light reflects off our shiny, hard interior surfaces -- like granite countertops and hardwood floors -- and bounces around, making it difficult for us to hear and see indoors regardless of age. Put simply, Hetherman says, "We've hardened our homes," and he's passionate about helping designers solve the dilemma they've created.

Hetherman is a designer by trade, and good functional design is his passion. He says, "You can always make it look good, but many designs just don't function well."

What are we doing wrong?

  • Installing stone countertops
  • Raising ceilings two or more stories
  • Hanging large framed art behind glass
  • Tearing down walls to create vast, open floor plans
  • Replacing carpet with tile, stone, hardwood, and laminates
  • Ripping out drapes and sheers in favor of wooden blinds and shutters

Touring the country speaking to designers and manufacturers, Hetherman began to recognize that design issues were contributing to a "confused consumer." He formed Club Mike to share information and to research with other designers what this confused consumer -- "Alison," as he's named her -- wants.

To Hetherman and his group, Alison is real. He even has a picture of her -- purchased from Google images -- hanging in his corporate offices. Hetherman wants to provide Alison with products and design improvements that meet her needs. He and Club Mike have spent the past year studying her, and they've learned that one important thing she wants is to dial down the noise in her home.

At the 2014 NAHB International Builders' Show, Hetherman presented Club Mike's findings -- improving home acoustics -- as one of the hottest design trends for 2014. His mission -- to "help the trade get ready for the shift," he says.

Fortunately, according to Hetherman, you don't have to give up the look you love and that you've already spent so much time, money, and effort creating. There are plenty of simple solutions for these design issues:

  1. Countertops. Choices abound when it comes to kitchen counters. A matte finish material such as Corian® has excellent acoustic qualities -- so much so that it's even been used to make speaker cabinets, according to Hetherman. If you're going for budget-conscious materials, laminate also works well for noise reduction.
  2. High ceilings. Hetherman has seen a large piece of sailcloth draped just below a 20-foot-high ceiling to help diffuse sound effectively.
  3. Wall art. Cloth-wrapped picture frames and large canvasses without glass -- even inexpensive gicleé art from your favorite home decorating or discount store -- absorb rather than bounce sound. It's a trick that's used with great success in noisy restaurants.
  4. Open floor plans. Larger area rugs soak up more noise. Hetherman recommends choosing rugs that extend at least another foot wider on every side than what you'd normally choose to put under a piece of furniture.
  5. Flooring. If you are willing to try something trendier than wood, cork is unbeatable for its noise-dampening properties.
  6. Window treatments. Silhouette® Window Shadings by Hunter Douglas line of window coverings have the look of wood blinds when they are closed, but they are suspended between sheer fabric that cushions sound.

Hetherman also suggests that if you're a noise-conscious consumer, choose quieter dishwashers and garbage disposals. Let manufacturers know what you want. Most of the time they will only improve their products when competing manufacturers force them to innovate -- or former customers such as yourself jump ship to follow newer, more consumer-friendly trends.

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.