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Reducing Noise In Residential Spaces

Excessive Reberberation

With increasing frequency apartment, condominium and townhouse dwellers are complaining about the noise generated within their dwelling units. Increasing use of hard floor surfaces and high vaulted ceilings are a major contribution to this phenomenon. Sounds generated in a space that are allowed to go unabated through the use of sound absorbing materials will tend to build up in intensity and smear the sound signals one wishes to hear. The use of many modern furnishings that lack soft plushy fabrics and stuffings will contribute even further to the problem of poor acoustics in the living space.

Unfortunately, too many people do not learn about their problem until after the fact, after they have moved in. Sadly, the options for corrective action are few and far between and will challenge the creativity of interior designers and owners to seek innovative solutions.


A hard surfaced floor, be it tile, hardwood or ceramic is not only going to reflect any sound generated within the space but will also magnify the sounds generated by the floor such as footfall or the scuffling of furniture. If the space is voluminous in nature due to high ceilings the sounds are going to be even louder and more intrusive. Carpeting with under padding on the other hand will suppress the floor-generated noise and will reduce the reverberation or hollow echoe sounds within the space. Carpeting also provides far better impact sound isolation between you and your neighbors below.


Walls generally constructed of gypsum drywall make up the majority of the boundary surfaces surrounding a space and will reflect in the order of about 95% of the sound waves striking them. Some of the wall space will likely include windows and contrary to the popular belief that curtains will add to the acoustical absorption, they do so only to a negligible degree. Curtains or drapes lack sufficient thickness to act as good sound absorbers.

Walls can be acoustically treated in several ways, after the fact. Walls can be furred out and faced with perforated plywood paneling with a sound absorbing material behind the perforated plywood paneling. This is an expensive proposition but then there are no cheap solutions to acoustical correction in a residence. Another alternative to introducing acoustical absorption is by way of decorative fabric covered acoustical panels. Available in sizes up to 4′×10′ decorative acoustical wall panels employ the use of a fiberglass acoustical core wrapped in an acoustically transparent decorative fabric. The panels can be glued or clipped to wall surface. Another alternative to the decorative acoustical wall panels is the “Stretch Wall” fabric system where the wall is lined with acoustical insulation and a system of concealed plastic moldings. The fabric facing is clipped into the moldings to produce an almost monolithic appearance.

In large spaces where large wall surfaces permit, large decorative wall hangings can be employed such a decorative quilts or decorative oriental rugs and the like. However when using these large hangings it is also best to reinforce the hanging with an acoustical absorber behind to boost the acoustical performance significantly. Recycled user-friendly cotton fiber batts or panels are now available in a variety of sizes and thicknesses, which can be used to provide acoustical performance. Unlike fiberglass acoustical insulation which can cause topical irritations due to the glass fibers, recycled cotton fiber pads marketed under the Acoustical Surfaces Inc trade names of Echo Eliminator, the cotton fibers are odorless, non irritating and extremely lightweight. (See product selection links)

It is important to know that in order to achieve effective sound absorption it is necessary to have some thickness to the absorber, 1″ is generally recommended. Carpeting applied to a wall provides only very limited sound absorption in the higher frequencies. Thicker carpets can be heavy and much more difficult to install. Acoustically, wall applied carpet is not the best bang for the buck.


Unlike commercial acoustical ceilings, the accepted norm for a residential ceiling is one that is both plain and monolithic in appearance. The ceiling area is ideally suited for the application of acoustical treatment since it frequently serves no other purpose. In the great European houses of yesteryear the ceilings were highly decorative compared with today’s plain ceilings.

Acoustically treating the ceiling area might consist of adhesively applying a commercial acoustical ceiling tile to the ceiling surface. Alternatively, the ceiling can be sprayed with an acoustical plaster. In both cases the appearance will have something of a commercial look to it, which prompts the homeowner to choose between form or function. Before selecting either a ceiling tile or an acoustical plaster, investigate the acoustical performance that will be achieved. The reduction of excessive reverberation in a space is dependent only on the volume of the space and the amount of absorption present. Since acoustical absorption is dependent to a large extent on the thickness of the absorbing material it would be wise to determine if the material selected will resolve the problem. This can be accomplished through a simple mathematical formula.

For large high vaulted ceilings the owner might want to consider the use of a fabric covered false beam approach. A false beam design can be implemented where the beams are constructed of fabric-covered fiberglass resulting in a high degree of acoustical absorption.

Another solution would be to apply a white melamine acoustical foam acoustical ceiling tile glued directly to the existing ceiling. These tiles are available in a variety of designs and are extremely lightweight and easy to install. The natural white color provides a high degree of light reflectivity. The melamine foam is a Class A fire safe product. (See Ceilings product selection links)

Furniture and Furnishings

In assessing the acoustical characteristics of your dwelling it is important to look at the furniture and furnishings. Soft padded furniture will add to the acoustical performance in your dwelling. Hard surfaced furniture and furnishings will do very little if anything to improve the acoustical environment.

Impact of Noisy Dwelling Spaces

Large voluminous residential spaces that lack appropriate acoustical design considerations are bound to interfere with verbal communications. If the owner has any degree of hearing loss the effect of an acoustically untreated space will be even more dramatic for reasons that the experts do not really understand. Two or more conversations taking place at the same time or with a TV or music in the background, intelligible conversation can be a real problem. Poor communications can have a detrimental effect on the quality of life therefore the condo, townhouse or apartment dweller should consider their life styles in context of the acoustical environment before they decide in favor of highly reverberant living spaces.

While the addition of acoustical treatment will improve speech intelligibility in a residential dwelling it is important to note that acoustical materials and acoustical treatment as described herein will not resolve the problem of noise generated by noisy neighbors, that is a matter of sound isolation.