One of the most important factors in the liveability of a house is noise. In some cultures noise is taken for granted. In traditional Japanese houses, the walls were made of bamboo and the rooms were separated by paper screens. The slightest whisper from any part of the house could be heard everywhere: the Japanese compensated by rigorously pretending not to hear anything that wasn’t intended for them. The noisy couple in the next room? They aren’t there. In America that’s not how we want to do things. We don’t want to have to pretend, or to wear earplugs, we want our houses to be as quiet as possible. We only want to hear sounds coming from the room we are in. Everything else should be deeply muffled, or, ideally, completely silenced. A quiet house is a calm and tranquil house.
Unfortunately the desire for quiet does not accord very well with the desire for efficiency. The traditional way to make a house quiet is to build for solidity: make the walls as thick as possible, ideally of wood or even stone; make the floors as thick and rigid as possible. The absolute epitome of quiet is a medieval castle, with stone floors and foot-thick stone walls. But not only is that approach expensive, it is inefficient in terms of construction material and energy usage. The heavier a house, the more it costs to build and the more it costs to heat and cool. Medieval castles cost a fortune to build and were notoriously impossible to keep warm.
It is, however, possible to minimize noise without sacrificing efficiency. The general approach is to cover the noise-transmitting surfaces with materials that deaden sound. For the floor that usually means a thick and densely woven carpet. For areas where carpet is not desirable, vibration-absorbing tiles can be used. For the walls and ceiling, the most effective approach is to cover them (at least partly) with acoustic panels.
Acoustic panels are typically square or rectangular panels constructed of materials that block,absorb, or shape sound.
They come in a variety of types, at a wide range of prices. Perhaps the fanciest are perforated metal tiles, which are very effective at absorbing sound but so pricey that they are usually only used for major public spaces such as concert halls. For home use, most available types of acoustic panels are constructed with a substrate of mineral fiber board, known as “micore”. This substrate may be covered by fabric, wood, or, for the best performance, acoustic tiles.
The most effective results are obtained by constructing acoustic panels on-site, matching them to the shape of the relevant surfaces. A much less expensive approach is to use prefabricated panels, which can simply be placed over a wall, like a painting or tapestry. Typically it is not necessary to fully cover a wall: often a dramatic improvement can be achieved with just a few strategically placed panels. If an acoustic panel ensemble is carefully arranged, it can not only reduce unwanted sound, but also generate “reverb” that improves the quality of sound generated within a room.
Many types of acoustic panels are available. The cheapest cost less than $10 per square foot, but these tend to be very, um, utilitarian. At the other end of the scale are panels such as the EchoPanels, with such a high level of aesthetics as to be part of a home decor scheme in addition to enhancing the acoustics of a room. Regardless of the ultimate choice, it is always a good idea to get advice from an acoustic consultant as early as possible. In many cases it is possible to improve an existing room by adding acoustic panels, but the results will never be as good as when the house is designed from the start with acoustics in mind.