Sound is everywhere. A child’s joyful laughter, the roar of a motorbike, the pitter patter of rain on a tin roof, the gentle hum of conversation, the sharp thud of a slamming door. Even silence is sound. So what is the soundscape in your home?
It’s not something we often think about, but the sounds in our homes form a soundscape. This is a combination of sounds that interplay with each other in an immersive environment, creating a powerful tool that helps humans relate to their surroundings. Audiologist Shevawn Becker says our acoustic environment, or soundscape at home, consists of sounds that surround us every day. “Some are pleasant and welcomed: the sound of your baby’s giggle, music that soothes, a partner whispering I love you.
While other sounds are intrusive and unpleasant: a leaky tap, the neighbour’s loud music or clanging dishes in the sink,” she says. Sound is expressed or measured in decibels (dB), explains Shevawn. “A whisper is around 30dB, a loud clap of thunder measures around 120dB, average speech sounds are around 50dB,” she says.
Shevawn says dB levels and certain types of sounds can directly impact health and wellbeing. “They can combine to form a dangerous duo, raising the stress response, decreased mood and contributing to poor sleep,” she says. “The flip side is also true with welcomed sounds that soothe the stress response and nourish the body, calming breathing rate and improving mood.”
When planning and designing a home, materials as well as design and layout of interior and exterior spaces all affect the home soundscape environment and surrounds. So it’s possible to take proactive steps to encourage those feel-good sounds and block or muffle the undesirable ones.
THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE
To reduce unwanted noise at home, barriers and sound-absorbent materials can be used. Architect Taras Wolf says many people block sound by using windows with double or triple glazing, but there’s a key aspect that impacts on the inside home soundscape that’s often overlooked. “Most people tend to forget sounds come through doors, and internal doors are rarely insulated,” he says. “Solid doors are better than hollow ones, but an insulated door is an even better option.”
Taras adds that the door frame, and the way it’s sealed, are also important. “A tighter seal will help to block noise, but if you take a close look at the average door, you’ll see gaps at the top, bottom and sides,” he says. When designing a home, placement of rooms is obviously key so you aren’t positioning potentially noisy rooms like kitchens near the media room, for example, or the garage and outdoor entertaining spaces near quiet sleeping zones.
Taking that one step further, Taras adds that within the room itself, the location of appliances should be considered. “You could have a bathroom near a bedroom with an insulated wall, for example, but if the shower/plumbing is right next to the bed, that will be noisy,” he says.
It all comes down to due diligence and careful planning. “One of the tricks in our trade is to use the robe space as an insulating barrier between rooms; clothing makes a fantastic sound-absorption material,” he says.
INTERNAL DESIGN FEATURES
Open-plan living in contemporary homes also presents another challenge. In the kitchen while the kids are having breakfast, mum might be on an important phone call in the family room, which, because of the open-plan layout, is actually connected. To overcome potential noisy spaces overlapping, and provide internal spaces that can be used for quiet living, Taras suggests creating zones. “Partition open-plan spaces to create screened areas so that people can be in separate spaces if they need privacy, but allow design flexibility so the zones can be opened up and there are shared spaces where people can come together,” he says. You could add a room divider, curtains or screens that slide away.
In modern homes, voids are often part of the architecture. In open spaces like these, sound travels upwards and while you can’t block the noise, you can divert attention from it. “It’s a concept that we call ‘sound distraction’,” says Taras. “If there is an environment where there’s a sound within the space, for example a courtyard with a void, you could be distracted from unwanted noise by a water feature, for example; the sound of running water is a distraction to any sounds reverberating above.”
With higher-density living and smaller backyards, blocking unwanted sound has become even more relevant to people living in urban and city landscapes. Special sound insulation products can be used to not only insulate media rooms but the whole house. They can be installed in external walls, internal walls, between the floors of a two-storey home and in apartments.
Technological development in soundproofing and buffering materials has heralded a new age in soundproofing. Companies like CSR have developed Gyprock Soundcheck, a high-density gypsum plasterboard, to help create quiet zones and reduce noise.
Hempcrete can also be used for soundproofing or sound control. Hudson Doyle of Hemp Lime Constructions says Hempcrete is a sustainable material with great acoustic properties. “For example, a rendered hempcrete wall is effective in keeping sound from transferring between spaces, while an exposed hempcrete wall will assist with sound absorption within a space,” he says. “Tradical hempcrete is not just for new builds either; it can be retrofitted or simply used to line existing walls.”
Some products can be used in conjunction with a wide range of acoustic insulation or backing materials. Richard Hamber, research and development manager, Deco Australia, says Deco Australia’s range of timber-look aluminium building products offers slimline design and versatile installation, allowing for multiple acoustic options. “In particular, the DecoPanel wall lining product is available with a perforated design and can be tailored to achieve acoustic outcomes,” he says. “The lightweight and non-combustible panels offer the ability to conceal acoustic backing materials with an attractive timber or custom design finish.”
What’s under your floor covering is also important to help keep your home comfortable and quiet. Jacinda Posen, marketing project manager of CSR Hebel, says Hebel Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (AAC) has a high surface mass and porous structure, providing excellent sound and thermal insulation properties. “It’s particularly effective in acoustically reflecting mid- to low-frequency sounds,” she says. “When used as flooring substrate, the steel-reinforced panels reduce sound transmission between floors and eliminate the squeaking, bouncing and
noise often associated with non-masonry flooring substrates.”
FURNITURE AND DECOR
Many of the furnishings and fixtures we see in modern homes are made up of hard materials; glass, concrete and steel proliferate, unlike in decades past where softer plusher materials and finishes were used. Modern minimalist style is austere — furniture is pared back and there are fewer soft furnishings to absorb sound.
Designer Sophie Kost from My Beautiful Abode says soft furnishings play a key role in softening spaces and absorbing sounds. “If you’ve ever walked into a building site before a home is completed, you can feel and hear the hard finishes,” she says. “Basically, we need to add depth and volume and move away from sharp, flat, smooth surfaces that create echoes.”
Sophie says one of the key elements to creating a softer feel and providing sound buffering is window furnishings. “Curtains can work more effectively than blinds; choose fabrics with pleats, curves and volume,” she says. “It’s not a new technology — you see it at movie cinemas.”
Wallpaper also plays a part in sound muffling. Sophie says three-dimensional quality wallpaper is a good choice. “It doesn’t need to look like a commercial space and can look beautiful — form and function can work well together,” she says.
Sophie adds that throws and cushions also help to reduce the amount of vibration within a space and absorb sound, and rugs work well too. “A runner down a long hallway with timber floors can absorb sound, tell a story about the space, as well as add warmth, comfort and colour,” she says.
THE OUTSIDE STORY
Exterior spaces also make up the home soundscapes. The whisper of wind through the trees, the sounds of children at play, even unwanted noise like traffic are part of the living landscape of sound.
If you’re close to a busy road, consider a sound wall or acoustic fence around the property for noise abatement — there are many options including brick, masonry, metal or timber. The higher it is, the more efficient it will be. Also make sure there are no gaps — it needs to go all the way down to the ground.
Neighbour noise can be a particularly important issue. On a smaller scale, decorative wall panels can provide sound insulation and reflect sound. Place it along the wall where sound needs to be muffled. Greening your landscape can also create sound buffers. Landscape designer Michael Ballentine from Spaces of Green says a home soundscape in exterior spaces are important. “As landscapers we always try to enhance the senses, and part of that is not only the sense of touch and smell but also what you hear in a garden,” he says. “Plantscapes condensed together into a green wall can have an intense reflection of sound — it doesn’t allow noise to penetrate through. These green walls should be lush, inviting and soft; when you create these structures, the first thing people do is navigate their way to them,” he says.
If planting a green wall, Michael advises most prefer a shady location. “No afternoon sun, and morning filtered light through to midday is ideal,” he says. “Gardens can be used to block unwanted sounds, but they’re also a source of sound, of nature — bird song, the relaxing sound of running water. It can also be the sound of condensed silence that you’d hear if you were out in the wilderness.”
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