A Quiet Room of One's Own

By Sarah K. Highland

The interior of the author’s house, which she designed and built. One inch of sand fills spaces between sleepers on the second floor to reduce noise. The author’s sister measures for floorboards. Also notice the thick exterior walls, which also reduce sound transmission. Photo provided

When people visit my house, they often comment appreciatively on how quiet it is. Peace and quiet can be hard to come by in a world of traffic, cell phones, and TV's at the gas station. Restful silence is important to our well-being, yet when we design and remodel our homes, this essential quality is often overlooked. My house has a number of conscious design choices that enhance the peacefulness of the space, most of which can be employed in other houses and apartments.

The walls of my home are thick and massive. If you cut out a chunk of wall and lifted it, it would be heavy. Most modern American construction is made of what is called light construction: thin, lightweight wooden framing members (studs) with lightweight insulation and wall coverings (plywood and drywall). Our houses are lightweights compared to traditional and modern European construction of stone, brick, and mud or, nowadays, concrete. My house hearkens back to the European tradition, with its exterior walls made of packed straw mixed with clay dirt, built a foot thick.

Massive walls don't let sound through easily. While exterior walls need their emphasis on insulation — mine have far more straw than clay in them for that reason — interior walls have no such need: the heavier and denser, the better. If you have a wall dividing a bedroom from a TV room, for instance, making it from bricks or cob (sand-clay-straw mix) will help to protect the sleepers from unwanted noise. With existing walls, you can add multiple layers of drywall or thick plaster to each side, building up mass. Some old luxury apartment buildings in New York City were actually built with thick walls between living spaces, packed floor to ceiling with heavy dirt.

I used a similar approach between my upstairs and downstairs. Between the strong wooden ceiling and the floor, I poured about six thousand pounds of sand. The sand is both massive and jiggly — two qualities that dampen sound waves and footstep vibrations trying to pass through them. We've used this strategy in several houses around Ithaca with good results. Key to the design is to minimize any direct contact between the floor and the ceiling below it: we laid the flooring on 2 x 3 sleepers (studs laid on the floor), which were cushioned from the wooden ceiling below by strips of cork (less effective) or recycled rubber (smellier but more effective). Only the screws holding the sleepers to the joists bridged the sound buffer.

There is more to sound-stopping than just mass, however. As noted above, it's important to avoid creating shortcuts for the vibration to take from one side to the other of the wall or floor. Instead of using the rubber strips as a separator, you can use special springy mounts called sound channels that go between the drywall and the studs or joists of a wall or ceiling. Filling dead spaces such as stud cavities with a thick insulation like dense-blown cellulose will also help them to act less like the inside of a guitar, and more like a sponge.

Additionally, anyplace air can go, sound will go. So when one of my windows wasn't fitting quite right, I could hear outdoor noise more clearly than I should inside my thick walls. After I fixed the window to shut properly, it became noticeably quieter. Likewise, if you build a massive partition between two rooms but have a loose-fitting door between, some of the benefit of your hard work will be lost. For a really snug seal, weatherstripping on interior doors might even make sense.

highland quiet house    
Wood chips mixed with wet clay and packed into an interior wall form a relatively massive partition wall, reducing sound inside the home. Photo provided

My house is especially quiet in winter, and that's because my refrigerator is primarily an icebox in cold weather: I live off the grid with solar power, and during the darkest months — which are usually the coldest — I cut down my electricity use by setting jugs of water outside to freeze and rotating them through my fridge, which is turned down or off. In my house the fridge is the main noise-making appliance — I can't afford the juice to run other devices humming along on standby. Without any non-human sources of noise indoors, it can get quiet and peaceful indeed. While we don't tend to think of electricity itself as noisy, the many little black-box transformers working away on the cords of typical household electronics give off heat and perhaps influence people in other subtle ways. Turning off power strips when not in use saves energy and, who knows, may improve the indoor atmosphere as well.

Some noisy appliances like bathroom fans may just need to be replaced. There are newer, quieter models available now, and bearings do wear out and get loud. If the bathroom fan is unpleasantly loud, it's far better to replace it than not to use it, since it plays an important role in protecting your home from moisture and mold. Other noisemakers, like the fridge, can sometimes be improved by setting the feet on rubber pads to keep the motor vibrations from finding their way into the structure of your house. When shopping for a new appliance, just as energy-efficiency should be at the top of the priority list, you may want to rank quietness highly as well.

A final curious note about noise: it has been observed that noise from a source we have warm feelings toward — like a next-door neighbor who is also a friend — causes less stress than noise from an unfamiliar or unfriendly source, such as an unknown delivery truck in the early morning. So it actually pays to build connections with our sonic communities, particularly the sector that may throw an occasional loud party — or sing lustily at sunrise.

In sum, as our technological world has brought noise and busyness into more and more aspects of our lives, a private room at home is often our sanctuary, the place where we can rest and restore ourselves for another day's engagement. By working with mass and insulating cavities and by isolating vibrating surfaces, we can shelter that room from unwanted external sound; and by turning off electronics and making informed purchases, we can weed out noise from within. Less noise that's irritating means less stress, and more room to appreciate the sounds that remain.

Sarah Highland, of Highland Artisan, is a designer, builder, and teacher. She will be leading a class at GreenStar, "Creating a Healthful House: A Case Study," on Wednesday, March 6, from 7 to 9 pm. See page 6 for more details. You can learn more about Sarah and her 2013 workshops at highlandartisan.com.


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