Psychologist Office Sound Problem

I have a psychological office in St. Louis. Mostly our clients do not talk loud, however, sometimes our clients are brain injured and they make quite a bit of noise. In other rooms, counseling might be going on. We are in a three story building with regular tiles above, and when we moved in, they put extra insulation over the wall joists, but I knew that wouldn’t do it.

We are getting busier, and I don’t know what to do. I’m thinking of white noise, I don’t know if we have enough money for new tiles, and I don’t think I want to chance the foam stuff that I would put in, instead of landlord, who would probably nix the whole idea. We have four offices that are affected, all about 9×12 or a little larger. Do you have any ideas or persons I could contact in st. Louis? Or types of companies? Or heavy materials that maybe I could put on top of the tiles between the rooms? I feel like I can only whisper when I talk about things/people because they might be able to hear us. Looking forward to your post.

St. Louis, MO

The problem of the sound transmission issue is unfortunately a very common problem. I get calls all the time from people in similar situations who are looking for products to help stop sound traveling from one office or exam room to the other. Confidentiality and patient privacy is extremely important. Many people call me looking for a product to put on the wall, and because I have helped so many people, I start the conversation by asking three main questions.

  1. Do the offices have the standard drop-in ceiling tiles? (The answer is almost always yes)
  2. Does the wall between the offices go all the way up to the roof deck? (Most people don’t know and I tell them to pop out a tile and have a look)
  3. Are there any air gaps around the door, between the bottom of the door and the floor or around the door jamb? If you don’t know, turn the lights off in the hallway and on in the office and see if any light leaks through. (Almost all of these doors have fairly significant air gaps)

When most office spaces are constructed, the contractors run the services along the ceiling, install the drop ceiling tiles and build the walls up to the ceiling tiles. From a construction standpoint, this is ideal, but from an acoustical standpoint it couldn’t be worse. The only thing that you have separating two offices that share a common wall are two ceiling tiles that are designed as an aesthetic barrier and to absorb some reverberation. They do not block much sound at all, it is not their job. The sound travels easily through one ceiling tile, over the wall and comes into the other office.

The door to the room is also a significant area for sound to leak into our out of the space. If ANY common air space is shared between one side of the door an the other, sound WILL leak through that gap. A 1% air gap in any kind of a sound barrier will leak 30% of the sound from one side to the other. Furthermore, a 5% air gap (ie: a ¼″ gap between the door and the floor) will leak 90% of the sound through. Try it. Close your door and put your ear right where the door meets the door jamb. You might want to lock the door or block it with you foot so someone doesn’t pop you in the head trying to get into the room. Most of the time you will be able to very clearly hear what is being said on the other side of the door.

The Solution

I’m sure you already have a pretty good grasp on the problem because it sounds like you have tried to take steps to fix it, but unfortunately the “insulation” on top of the ceiling tiles wasn’t quite the right product to do the job. LOTS and lots of people call me and tell me that this was their first step to try to soundproof the offices, but insulation doesn’t block any sound at all, it absorbs echo. You can read my explanation of sound blocking vs sound absorbing to better understand why this happens.

You’re probably sitting there saying “On with it, What products do I need!?” If I were in your situation, I would order enough barrier decoupler to cover all of the ceiling tiles and a door seal kit to install on the door. You may also want a white noise machine. I will go into the details about the products below.

I commonly tell people to start with the ceiling and the door, and if the problem still exists to call me back and we can re-approach the situation. I rarely hear back from people, which is a good sign. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to sell more product but if the problem is fixed, and people are happy then I did my job. The nice thing about this is that out of all of the products that I have, these are some of the most cost effective. I like being able to tell people things like “let’s start with the cheapest products and work our way up if we need to”.

Barrier Decoupler

The barrier decoupler is designed to be a simple noise barrier. The product is 3/8″ thick, weighs 1lb per square foot and comes in two different roll sizes – 54″ × 20′ (90 square feet) and 54″ × 3′ (135 square feet). It can easily be cut with a sharp scissors or a razor blade and simply put on the backs of the existing ceiling tiles. This will add a significant amount of weight to the ceiling, so if you have 2′ × 4′ tiles, I often suggest adding a T-bar cross beam across the center of the tile so that the existing tile doesn’t bow with the added weight. The barrier decoupler has an STC rating of 26, which means that it stops an average of 26 dBa from passing through it.

The product is made up of a 1/8″ mass loaded vinyl noise barrier adhered to an ¼″ polyurethane foam decoupler. The mass and weight of the vinyl is the “active ingredient” and will stop approximately the same amount of sound as a typical wall. The foam is intended to touch the tiles and stand the vinyl off of the tiles and the track. This separation GREATLY improves the performance of the vinyl as it allows the vinyl to move. As the sound wave hits the vinyl, because of the mass and density, the vinyl will move very slightly transforming the airborne wave of energy into heat by moving the vinyl. The insulation that you installed does not have much density at all, it is mostly air. Because sound travels through air, sound travels through insulation.

Door Seal Kit

The door seal kits are also a good idea when you are trying to stop sound. The kits are a retro-fit product that is designed to install onto the door jamb as well as the door itself. They provide a neoprene gasket to make the seal. The jamb seal is stationary and the door bottom is a spring loaded mechanism that closes to the ground as the door is shut. We offer two different kits, the Standard Kit (1/2″ thick) and the Heavy Duty kit (7/8″ thick). The standard kit is normally installed onto a hollow-core door, and the heavy duty kit generally goes onto a solid core door. The difference is the amount of gasketing that makes the seal.

White Noise Machine

The white noise machine is also not a bad idea at all. You want to put this in the room where your “listeners” would be, not in the room where the noise will be made. The white noise machine will raise the ambient noise level in the room so that the sound coming from other areas are harder to hear. The sound that it makes is similar to a small fan or a small space heater running – kind of a whir or a hum, or a combination of both. Each machine covers a space no larger than 12″ × 12″. I could make all kinds of analogies here, but I think I’ve gotten long winded enough.

Tell me Your Problem

If you have a similar situation, I would be more than happy to put a product list together for you, figuring out the cheapest way to get it there. Send me an e-mail or leave a comment with room and door measurements along with a description of the problem. The more details, the better.


    • Ted W

      Hi Whitney,

      Thanks for the question. I would be happy to help you determine the best way/ways to approach the situation. I will need a little more information, though. Can you provide me with a bit of information about the spaces in question and walk me through a bit about the nature of the problem?


  1. Terry Diebold

    Hi–After reading your information, I realize I don’t squat about preventing conversations from being overhead on either side of a joint office wall. We don’t have ceiling tiles and our doors open onto two separate hallways but what we DO have is cheap drywall between our two offices that butts into a joint, antique brick wall. We have stuffed insulation into the spaces where the wall meets the antique brick but still, as stated in one of the letters you’ve already received, some clients are very loud. 1) Would a wall hanging or covering the walls with fabric make a difference (the wall is 8′ x 11′)? 2) If not, could you use green glue and foam board instead of green glue and drywall? Thanks–Terry

    • Ted W

      Unfortunately, a wall hanging or fabric covering is not likely to offer any reduction in the sound getting from one room to the other. That might absorb a very small amount of echo in the room in which it is added, but that doesn’t sound like the problem you are trying to reduce. Additionally, foam board is not a sound barrier, most foam products are used to control echo.

      Without being in the space to see the problem I have to make some assumptions, so you’ll have to forgive me if I miss the mark, but your mention about “stuffing insulation into the spaces where the wall meets the antique brick” tells me that this was an open air space/gap in the wall. Again, insulation being light, soft, and fluffy makes it not a noise barrier. To block the sound you first need to make your room as air tight as possible. I would do this by adding some acoustical sealant/caulk between the antique wall and the new drywall partition.

      Sound is like water — and imagine where the water would leak from office A to office B if the room were filled with water from floor to ceiling. That is where the sound goes first as well. I would start here and after the gap is sealed properly, step back and listen.


  2. John P

    in a commercial style building i have sheetrock walls between offices filled with cellulose blow material. The walls do not go past the suspended ceiling grid so I have installed R30 insulation on top of the wall plate to the bottom of the concrete floor above. It seems the sound is coming from where the office wall meets the metal in between the windows.

    What can I do?

    • Ted W

      The sound pressure in these offices are going to use the path of least resistance to get from “point A” to “point B” which is always any common air gaps between the two offices. It’s quite common to see office build outs where the walls meet at a window and leave an airspace. The only way to start to reduce this is to use some kind of caulk or sealant and make that joint as airtight as possible. You could use a locally available closed-cell foam and finish it with sealant. Airtight is critical.


  3. Fountain Yount

    Hi Ted
    I am moving into an office in April that is being built out into 3 small offices and a lobby area- there is already an existing wall- which will be cut into to create a door- we are also adding three walls- I find different ideas on the best way to soundproof the walls so that patients conversations are not heard in the lobby – also one therapist sees kids and we want to contain that noise as much as possible. I am planning on doing solid core doors- making them as air tight as possible- but was curious about adding insulation to the walls – I also found vinyl sheeting- or even the idea of doing double sheet rock on the walls- bit new and adding to existing- I am on a tight budget so was trying to find the most bang for my buck – these walls will be built all the way to the ceiling.

    • Ted W

      As long as the walls go from the floor to the ceiling and are as airtight as possible and as long as you have the doors in mind, the only other question is the HVAC system. If these rooms share common duct work, that could potentially be a problem.

      For the walls, I would suggest using the most cost-effective fiberglass insulation you can find. I would double-layer the drywall on the studs, and use a product called Green Glue between two layers of 5/8″ sheetrock on each side. I would also suggest taking a look at the installation instructions for the doors (look at page 10) that we have on our website and follow them for getting your solid-core doors into the rough openings.

      I would also strongly suggest a heavy-duty door seal kit around the perimeter of the doors as well as a few white-noise machines to subtly increase the background noise in the offices and waiting areas, which will help to distract listeners from hearing conversations.

      Please let me know if you have any other questions or if you would like to discuss the situation further. Thanks,

  4. Polly

    Hi Ted,

    Recently moved into a 4 office suite in a commercial type building. I can hear the neighbor next to me so I know he can hear me- and worst of all- my clients (I work as a psychologist). We are also in the middle of two other businesses and we are trying to maintain our clients privacy. Would it help to play white noise in the ceiling, since you say it is where most or the sound travel comes from? Thinking of getting a speaker set and putting the speakers up in the ceiling and hooking it up to a device that will play an mp3 of white noise continually while seeing clients. Any other suggestions are welcomed, thanks for your help!

    • Ted W

      There are a lot of potential areas for sound to leak from one room to the next in offices because the build-outs are so different. It’s really tough to try to make absolute recommendations across the board. I was just in an office a few weeks ago where the majority of the sound was getting from “A to B” which was a gap between a recently built wall and a window that connected the two rooms. But, making a generalization, I would suggest taking a close look at the ceiling.

      White noise will likely offer some relief, so I would absolutely suggest starting there. It is a cost-effective and non-intrusive way to try something. You might want to price out a few of our SoundScreen machines for each office relative to the cost of a system up in the plenum (above the ceiling tiles) just to find which is the best for your situation. I would also suggest backing the ceiling tiles with drywall/sheetrock and see what that does. Most of the time, those two steps will reduce the problem enough to be acceptable. If they don’t, I will need to explore it with you specific to your building and problem. The next step is usually a door seal kit to seal the air gaps/cracks around and under the door and maybe looking at modifying the HVAC system if you have either a plenum return or a common return or supply line.

      Let me know if you have any specific questions or if you need additional information.


  5. Marsha

    Hi, Ted — Another psychologist here… We have a three-office suite. When we did our original build-out, the contractor actually did most of the things you’ve talked about here. Walls all the way up; good construction of interior walls; taking care to reduce noise transmission via studs and HVAC ducts; coverage of door gaps using a kit similar to yours; built-in white noise machines. He also installed a double door for the office directly off the waiting room (two doors facing one another in a single frame – one opening in, the other out – making a sandwich with airspace in between). All in all, the sound conditioning has been great.

    Except – we only did the double door for the office off the waiting room; the other two office doors didn’t seem to be a likely problem. Now, ten years down the road, we’ve had some changes (including a tiny kitchenette near where the single doors are) and we find that we need double doors for the other two offices. The doors have already been sealed and gasketed (and replaced recently), and they’re solid core.The landlord has told us that the current door frames would have to be completely removed and replaced with different (deeper?) frames to accommodate two facing doors. He has said (rather predictably) that this makes it too expensive, and refuses to do it as part of our lease renewal negotiations… Insight? Suggestions? Thank you!

    • Ted W

      Considering what you’ve already done (solid-core doors, proper seals, white noise system), it would likely be quite expensive to tear out the framing that is there and modify it for a double-door setup. If you went with one of our Studio 3D doors, the rough opening would also have to be modified (strengthened significantly) which would be about the same cost as the other option above. Also, our soundproof doors are in the $3500 ballpark.

      The only thing that comes to mind would be to get some kind of movable acoustical quilted curtain panel that could be rolled into place when a patient was in the room in question and rolled out of the way when someone needed to get in/out of the space. These are basically industrial-grade moving blankets with a sheet of lead as a center layer. We don’t use actual lead – we use a dense, heavy viyl, but it has the same density and weight of lead. We could put a small window in them as well, if needed. Considering these are industrial-grade, we do have a few different choices of facings to “dress them up” a bit.

      Here is one I did in a customer’s residence a few years ago:
      Quilted Curtain on track


  6. Armando

    Hi Ted, not a psycologist but a Graphic Designer living in an apartment with what seems to be a paper thing door. For a long time I’ve been looking for a solution regarding sound liking from the living to the hallway, (where my neighbors pass by all the time). Unfortunately my door is at the end of the stairs so everyone who passes by can hear whatever I do or say.

    Would you recommend a product or series of products that could help with this particular situation?

    My thanks in advance.


    • Kyle Berg

      Hi Armando,

      The tough part to your noise problem is, with apartments, these aren’t always owned. If this is your case, you will want to talk to your Super before any changes are made. There are a couple ways to go about this problem to help keep the noise outside from coming in, and vice versa.

      The first step is to see if the door that is currently installed is a solid core door. If so, this is good! This means that the sound is being blocked by the dense, solid core door, but is simply flanking around the door and entering/exiting through the perimeter. This can be solved by adding an Adjustable Door Seal Kit around the perimeter of the door. These have an adjustable bottom, that lifts itself up when the door is being opened, and drops itself down when the door is almost closed, so that it does not wear down the finished flooring or the mechanism due to rubbing on the ground. This will seal the perimeter of the door, so that sound may not pass through. A 1% gap will allow 30% sound through, and a bigger gap, even more! Look at it like when you are driving down the road in your vehicle. When the windows are up, you barely hear anything from outside the car, if at all. Crack your window open just a little bit, and it gets quite loud. Same rules apply in this situation. Granted, your car is traveling down the highway at 65 MPH, but you get the idea.

      If the door isn’t a solid core door, and cannot be replaced with one, there is another option that will help. This option is not as effective as the first option, but will still help with the transfer of noise. Our Quilted Curtain with a mass loaded vinyl barrier, can be hung over the door so that it covers the door completely. I suggest making this curtain roughly 2-4&PRime; larger than the door (to keep the flanking to a minimum). These curtains are very dense (the key to soundproofing) and have both an absorptive face, plus a mass loaded vinyl barrier to help block the transfer of noise from either direction. These curtains are fairly heavy, and cannot be scrunched up or tied to the side of the door. They weight about 1.5lbs/square foot, so your average door curtain would weigh between 30-35lbs. They can be made with grommets along the top side so that it can be hung with hooks, or hang from a track system. The track system would need to be 2 times the width of the door in order to give clearance of the door from the curtain.

      If you have other questions, or would like my help in more detail, please feel free to let me know.


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