Cut out that racket!
That anguished cry has rung through households for generations. And, if you think you're saying it more often lately, you may be right.
Our houses are getting noisier, for a number of reasons. For one, we tend to surround ourselves with noisy stuff--big-screen televisions, computer games, stereo systems, CD players, hair dryers, electronic coffee-bean grinders and other decibel-raising paraphernalia that barely existed a generation ago.
Having lots of bathrooms means lots more noise-prone pipes and more ventilation fans. Even if our televisions aren't giant-size, you can bet that a given household will have several of them--and when was the last time you heard of an American house with just one telephone?
Then there are the changing dimensions of the houses themselves. Hardly a house is designed these days that doesn't have a family room or "great room" adjoining the kitchen. The net effect is more family coziness. But the side effect tends to be a lot of activity--a food processor whirring a scant 10 feet away from blasts of the kids' computer game, for example--within a relatively tight space.
We also have the laundry room, which has crept up from the basement, perhaps settling in upstairs, near where some of us might be trying to sleep, or on the main floor, where it happens to be adjacent to those already-noisy kitchen and family room combos.
Let us not forget the darling of '90s residential architecture, the media room, which tends to be a comfy place to kick back and "experience" a movie, complete with all the Dolby effects you care to hear and then some.
Somewhere in the middle of all this sits a home office, where some poor soul is trying to conduct a phone conversation or crunch numbers while involuntarily hearing Barney the dinosaur bellow his endearments in the next room.
"I think people are more aware of noise than they have been," said Les Blomberg, who in the course of his work with the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier, Vt., fields innumerable complaints on the subject. "One reason is that we have been trying to escape to the suburbs for 50 years now. People think of noise as a city thing, but we have managed to take the noise with us.
"We've been busy populating our lives with these technical devices--laying down thousands of dollars for them--that are supposed to improve the quality of our lives. Then people realize that it's driving them nuts."
If not nuts, then perhaps slightly hard-of-hearing. The World Health Organization in 1996 declared noise to be a "significant health threat." In addition, various studies have linked noise levels to stress, increased blood-pressure levels, sleeplessness and just plain distraction.
Blomberg's nonprofit group sponsors an extensive Web site, www.nonoise.org, that contains thousands of news reports and technical research pieces on the subject, and offers help in combating sources of noise pollution that range from too many aircraft overhead to your neighbor's leaf blower.
He says that although some manufacturers of household goods are attempting to quiet down their products, most of them fail to communicate such information effectively to buyers. Some of them may flat-out misrepresent the "quiet" qualities of a product, he said.
"What we need is something like the [energy-efficiency] stickers that are now required on refrigerators," Blomberg said, adding that such acoustical ratings would need to be quantified fairly simplistically, the way that R-values of thermal insulation came to be easily understood by the buying public.
"Public awareness [of residential noise levels] has increased," agreed Allen H. Shiner, an acoustical engineer whose Chicago firm, Shiner and Associates, has worked with residential builders and developers on sound control. Nonetheless, he said, new-construction buyers are more likely to encounter aggressive noise-control measures in multifamily homes (such as town houses or high-rise condominiums).
"The single-family home builder does not have a great interest in controlling the sound from one room to another room, other than perhaps a media room," he said, explaining that consumer demand hasn't been particularly vocal in that segment of the housing market.
"When you talk about multifamily, that's entirely different. On the higher ends of the market, the developer and architect are very concerned with acoustics," Shiner said. "When you are paying $150 to $300 a square foot for an apartment, you feel you are as entitled to peace and quiet as you are to security and all the other elements."
For example, the developers of the Block X complex of town houses and condominiums in Chicago's West Loop worked with Shiner's firm to add insulation and adapt construction methods to reduce the sound transmission both above and below each unit and side to side. David Chase, a principal of the Thrush Cos., said his firm chose solid-core doors and sound attenuation materials to reduce noise transmission because he knew his market would demand it.
"I encourage [potential buyers] to slam the doors," Chase said. "We know that in our market, buyers are very sensitive to noise. We knew that when we were planning these units, we had to do two things: Keep them quiet and dry."
Though Shiner suggested that multifamily housing is more likely than single-family to contain sound-control measures, a few builders are actively promoting them as a quality issue.
Jodi Satko, director of sales and marketing for Burnside Homes, said her company noticed that potential buyers commented that when they filled the bathtubs at their old homes, "it sounded like the house was collapsing. Or they might be having a party and someone goes into the powder room and you can hear everything--it kind of breaks the mood."
Now, several years back, in most Burnside locations, the company began to wrap pipes to muffle sound and to add sound insulation in bathroom walls and in other sources of sound transmission.
Shiner agrees that there seem to be more home-building products on the market that are intended to produce less noise. "Public awareness has increased. There is a greater demand for these products." But, he said there are a number of caveats for consumers:
"Some [manufacturers] are just taking advantage of the situation," and making claims that are unrealistic, he said. Also, the products that have genuine noise-reduction capabilities tend to cost more, he said.
Additionally, if the products are not installed properly, they may be a complete waste, he said. "There can be a wide disparity between design and construction."
Most consumers limit their sound-reduction measures to post-construction features, such as wall-to-wall carpeting or heavy draperies. But the time to make substantial improvements may be before a house is built, whether it's in the architect's specifications or, for tract construction, in asking the builder to provide more detail about which products and building methods will be used.
Although some of the sound-control measures probably are limited to custom budgets, some builders who handle semicustom or even tract building say it never hurts to ask whether a home can get certain upgrades or features, as today's competitive market has inspired many of them to take special requests to heart.
Included here are some generalized areas that can contribute to (or reduce) household noise, as suggested by builders, engineers and architects.
* Appliances: Dishwasher manufacturers have tackled the noise issue a couple of ways: Some have quieted the motors and circulation pumps; others have switched from one noisy motor to two smaller and theoretically quieter ones.
In addition, some manufacturers place sound-absorbing material that lessens vibrational noise; some place fiber-glass blankets around the unit. Other features that may be found in some models include felt padding, rubber buffers and "sound seals" that wrap around the dishwasher's front edge.
Refrigerators are noise sources, too. Inquire about sound insulation to muffle the condenser fan and compressor. Some manufacturers have moved the compressor to the top of the refrigerator in an effort to reduce sound. In some models, look for foam insulation between inner and outer cabinets and doors.
* Fans: Some people say they never turn on their kitchen and bath fans because they just can't stand the sound. Manufacturers say they are trying to keep it down, but the effect is likely to be higher cost. One alternative is to install the noisy motor in an attic, away from bath or kitchen. If that's not an option, consider these features: Look for kitchen range hoods with variable speeds in order to improve the odds of getting a more acceptable noise level.
Whole-house fans for attic ventilation may be energy-wise, but some of them sound like airplane engines. Take the noise level into consideration when deciding where to locate it, and before purchase, inquire whether a given unit provides data on its noise level.
* Windows: Double- or triple-glazed windows generally will seal out more noise than single-glazed ones. A couple of options are "laminated" windows, in which a thin sheet of hard plastic is sealed between two layers of glass; and those filled with gases that seal the interior air spaces.
Many experts prefer wood windows over vinyl for sound control, though there is some difference of opinion. The bottom line always turns out to be meticulous installation: Where air can infiltrate, so can sound.
* Insulation: There are dozens of options--and opinions--here. Consider insulating not just exterior walls, but interior walls, too, where stereos, doorbells and busy bathrooms are in close proximity. Several manufacturers are offering fiber-glass batts that are touted for sound-reduction properties, but experts suggest that generic fiber-glass batts will work well, too. Again, the key is tight installation, no matter which form of insulation is used. All gaps have to be filled, and the batts have to be placed to fit carefully around pipes and wiring.
Other kinds of insulation promote their sound-reducing properties. Often cited are rockwool, cellulose and insulating concrete forms, which are modular blocks made of expanded polystyrene that are used to build reinforced concrete walls. Other ways to insulate include wrapping pipes and adding double layers of drywall in key areas.
(The North American Insulation Manufacturers Association in Alexandria publishes a free booklet, "Sound Control for Commercial and Residential Buildings;" call 703-684-0084.)
* Floors: The easiest way to soften the noise of walking is with padded carpeting, but many consumers want wood and tile floors. One effective way to reduce "footfall sound" is by using an underlayment, typically a kind of fiberboard, under the floor to absorb sound.
Squeaky floors are another source of ear pollution, and some floor-joist manufacturers are now marketing their products as squeak eliminators.
Although laminate flooring has rocketed in popularity in the last couple of years, some consumers have complained of their traffic noise, and so some manufacturers have added backings to absorb sound. Another alternative are laminates made from vinyl composites rather than the more common melamine, which claim to have less vibration.