Planes, trains and automobiles can all negatively impact your well-being with their incessant noise levels. If you live near an airport, highway or rail line, you know this already. Maybe your windows were double-paned by local ordinance to allow for a planned expansion. Mine were when I lived an eight minute drive to Los Angeles International Airport in the 1990s. My New York City’s apartment windows were not, however, and even though I was 10 stories above street level, the constant noise of impatient drivers honking and the not infrequent squeal of brakes and crash of metal on metal all regularly disrupted my ability to relax at home. It was one of the reasons I moved away.
“Loud noise and even low levels of chronic noise can damage hearing [and] the damage cannot be reversed – at least as far as we know at this moment in time,” says environmental scientist Jamie Banks, executive director of Quiet Communities, a nonprofit focused on helping the public reduce health and environmental harm from noise and pollution. Conditions like tinnitus, commonly experienced as a ringing in your ears, and hearing loss are not the only impacts noise has on your health though, she points out.
“The effects that are not so intuitive are those affecting our heart and circulatory system, our metabolism and endocrine system, and our mental state. For example, noise can disturb our sleep, and cause stress and annoyance. In response, the body releases stress hormones and neurotransmitters that set off a chain of events resulting in damage to the blood vessels, which in turn cause or contribute to conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and even ischemic heart disease.”
How you’re personally impacted is going to vary of course. Noise level, duration, pattern, type and frequency all hit you differently, Banks comments. “Is it high pitched like a squeal? Does it have a strong bass component like a boom box? Does it keep repeating so that you can’t get away from it? All of these factors are going to play into how the body responds.” A dog’s constant barking may be intolerable to some and barely heard by others. “We all have different filters,” she notes. Quiet Communities’ research shows aircraft, cars and motorcycles without mufflers, construction, and gas leaf blowers are among the worst outdoor offenders.
“If you can shut your door or window and make the sound go away that’s one thing, but if it comes right through the walls and windows of your home, that’s another story,” Banks says. “Construction equipment, lawn and garden equipment, and aircraft can produce noise with strong low frequency components that allow it to travel over long distances and penetrate walls and windows.” This makes people feel violated, she shares. “When noise persists and cannot be controlled, people can feel powerless, which is a source of stress and psychological problems in and of itself,” Banks adds.
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Different people are affected differently, she points out. “Children and people with conditions like autism spectrum disorders or veterans with PTSD may be especially affected. These populations may have a heightened sensitivity to certain types of noises resulting in anxiety, behavioral disorders, stress, and depression. We have heard of children with autism who respond to certain types of noise by hitting themselves, scratching themselves, throwing things, and so forth. Seniors also tend to be more sensitive to noise.”
“Some of my clients with autism or sensory processing disorder struggle with noise,” shares Dallas area interior designer Shelly Rosenberg. “They cannot simply compartmentalize extraneous noise and ignore it like many of us tend to do. Noise to them becomes all-encompassing and even physically painful,” she shares. Rosenberg focuses on special needs clients, and has two children of her own that gave her first-hand experience with the sensory issues experienced by clients on the spectrum.
Not all noise is created by outdoor factors. Some are inflicted upon us by unhappy household members (two- or four-legged), TVs or radios played loudly, kitchen or bath vent fans, pipes hammering or neighbors’ loud arguments, animals or electronics. “Noise is usually more tolerable when you are able to control it,” Banks observes. Home maintenance helps reduce noise issues. Good relations with your neighbors can do the same.
Covid exacerbated residential noise issues by increasing the types of activities we brought home, from exercise to schooling to work to caregiving, and often brought more people into the house at the same time, but it didn’t invent them. “Acoustic challenges in the home have always existed, but most owners just accept them because they don’t think they can do anything about it (or their designers or builders don’t quite know how to address them),” comments Stamford, Connecticut-based acoustical designer Steve Haas. The most common indoor noise issues he comes across are excessively reverberant spaces like great rooms with their hard surfaces, sound transmitting from room to room (through walls, ceilings and floors) and noise intrusion from the home’s mechanical equipment.
Bedrooms with their soft goods – carpet, rugs, upholstered furniture, wallpapers, draperies and sheers, bedding and sound machines are easy to insulate against noise, Rosenberg notes. “Bathrooms are most difficult, because this is usually a small room with all hard surfaces and an excess of moisture. Acoustics here need to be addressed during construction for best results which requires forethought.”
These spaces, designed for spa-like relaxation, are often overlooked, the designer adds. “The acoustics are terrible! All sounds are amplified while fixtures are in use. Uninsulated tub units sound thunderous as they are filled with water. Pipes can knock and ping; toilet seats slam; faucets can whine or hum. This is why many autistics avoid bathing; too many sensations all at once.”
Kitchens are also super-loud, observes the designer, “especially at the end of the day [when] the entire family is home.” She points to the cacophony of pots and pans clanging with meal preparation, the ventilation hood howling, disposal chugging, microwave pinging, timers beeping and the volume of cross-conversations compensating for it all. “No wonder families dread the infamous ‘meltdown hour’ in the evenings,” she declares.
“If you start designing with senses in mind from the beginning, much can be done to ensure a quiet home,” Rosenberg suggests. “Beyond addressing insulation, vibration and quieter machinery overall, you can specify acrylic window inserts that block noise. You can also specify thicker landscaping to soften neighborhood noise and higher traffic areas.”
“If we are remodeling, I suggest extra insulation inside walls between rooms. When purchasing upgrades in kitchen and bath, look for insulated sinks and tubs. Many appliances now advertise as ‘quiet’ with lower decibel ratings. Also, look into gravity toilets vs. pressure flush systems and soft-close toilet seats.” If she’s not involved in a full remodel, felt acoustic tiles are an easy (and DIY-friendly) noise reduction tool, Rosenberg adds.
“Interior noises, say from HVAC and plumbing, can be readily addressed to provide just the right level of sound throughout the home, especially in critical spaces,” Haas notes. “Obviously, it’s much better (and less costly) to address these issues during the design instead of after the fact.”
Exterior noises are addressed with window and façade upgrades, he adds. “However, more and more people want to have quiet on their property while relaxing at their pools or in their gardens.” (This is especially true for the luxury homes that are a strong focus for Haas’ firm.) My market rate Los Angeles condo was quiet because of those double-paned windows, but when I sat out on my balcony or at our complex’s pool, I was subjected to the incessant noise of jets landing and taking off at nearby LAX. Hardly relaxing!
When it comes to noise transmission within the home, Haas is most commonly brought in to consult on entertainment spaces like home theaters, live music rooms, even the occasional grand ballroom, he says! “We are brought in to design the acoustics and audio to a premium level, and ensure that the rest of the house isn’t disturbed by those turning up the volume!” he comments.
He also consults on bedroom suites, home offices, gathering spaces and other rooms in the home. “No two homeowners have the exact same needs when it comes to controlling the sound of their homes, but it is certainly common for people to want their sleeping and relaxing spaces to be contained from other noise intrusions from both human activity and mechanical noises.”
“In any project, the first step is to understand what the owner’s needs are relative to improving sound quality and control,” Haas suggests. “With a renovation, however, there is the added complexity of understanding what aspects of the existing construction may be contributing to the noise and how practical it would be to upgrade these aspects to mitigate the issues. Sometimes, when we get brought in to solve acoustic issues after the fact because a homeowner can’t sleep, the noise that they are bothered by is intermittent and not easily explainable. This is especially true in multi-family residences or townhouses in urban environments, and we have to put on our ‘forensic investigator’ hats to uncover the problems in order to then provide a solution for them.”
New construction is easier, the acoustical designer points out. “A new build is much more straightforward to address at the design level (or at worst in early construction). It still requires a full understanding of the owner’s needs – literally, what keeps them up at night, in some cases!” From there, he works with the design team to identify construction upgrades, acoustically-friendly surfaces and engineering approaches for mechanical noise. “All of these recommendations need to be thoroughly documented and then overseen to ensure that the builders comply with all of the acoustic details.”
“We can also add noise to an environment to mask unwanted sound,” Rosenberg suggests. “Many people like the continuous hum of a fan while sleeping. Noise machines or apps offer a variety of sounds like static, rain, or waves.” The most relaxing to humans, she says, is bird song. Why? “In caveman days, bird song indicated safety; when predators arrive, birds scatter and get quiet.”
“It is critical to understand with any owner what their concerns are (and aren’t) and to what degree they want each issue treated,” Haas notes. Clients often don’t understand how their design choices can create acoustical issues that are much more easily addressed in the planning stage than trying to correct after the fact when, he points out, “it becomes a quality of living issue down the road for them or their children.”
Contributors Banks, Haas and Rosenberg will be sharing their noise management insights in an hour-long Clubhouse conversation tomorrow afternoon (October 19, 2022) at 4 pm Eastern/1 pm Pacific. You can join this WELLNESS WEDNESDAYS discussion here. If you’re unable to attend, you can catch the recording via Clubhouse Replays here or the Gold Notes design blog here next Wednesday.