When Mat Thorp bought his home in the Palisades neighborhood of Northwest Washington, he gave little thought to the airplanes that would be roaring over his residence on their way to and from Reagan National Airport.
That was 40 years ago, when Thorp worked long hours in the aviation field and traveled extensively. Living so close to the airport -- with the quick access it gave him to cities across the country -- outweighed the negatives of noisy days.
His viewpoint changed once Thorp retired and began to spend more time at home. The turning point, he recalled, was a reception he hosted on his patio in 2001. When he replayed a video of the event, Thorp was struck by the number of times an airplane would roar overhead, cutting short conversations and drowning out laughter.
"We all knew the airport was there before we moved into our homes," Thorp said. "And many of us do recognize the airport as a community asset. But the sound of those jet engines can be very disconcerting if you are outdoors or if you have your windows open. What we are trying to do is to work together with the airport on various noise abatement and mitigation programs so that we can all live together."
Thorp is far from the only homeowner in the Washington area struggling with noise issues. There are people who live on busy streets, city dwellers in areas rife with active and noisy nightlife, and property owners whose residences sit close to train tracks. Across the country, homeowners are reporting more frequently that they view adequate soundproofing as a necessary amenity.
Outside noise isn't the only concern. More homes today feature blaring home-theater systems. A growing number of people work from home offices. Homes are being built on smaller footprints in many urban areas. And many buyers still love those large two-story foyers and living rooms. All this combines to make for more noise indoors, noise that floats from room to room.
The good news is that owners can reduce noise in their homes. Some steps are costly, such as replacing windows and switching hollow-core doors with solid wood versions. Others are less expensive, such as adding thicker drapes to windows and decorating with plusher furniture.
Other homeowners, particularly those who live near airports, are turning to a different way to reduce noise in their homes: political action.
Owners who are concerned about noise are finding that builders and architects are increasingly receptive to working with them to reduce the problem, whether these owners are building new homes or soundproofing existing ones.
"I don't think people are any more concerned about noise now than they were in the past," said Michael Lerner, president of Bethesda-based Meridian Homes. "I think the concerns are the same, but there are now more opportunities, more solutions available, to help with the problem. These solutions may or may not have been available in the past."
When most people think of must-have options for houses, they think of items such as granite countertops, double-bowl vanities, three-car garages or hardwood floors. The annual Home Features Survey from the National Association of Realtors, though, adds another amenity to that list: sound deadening.
According to the survey, 65 percent of respondents cited soundproofing as an important or extremely important home feature. The survey found that 38 percent of respondents said they desired less noise throughout the home, while 48 percent said their bedrooms were the most important areas for quiet.
Houses without adequate soundproofing are proving to be a major annoyance to their owners. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that noise is the top complaint people have with their neighborhoods, beating out the more publicized problems of crime and litter.
Thorp emphasizes that he is not just complaining about noise, he's doing something about it. Thorp serves as chairman of the aircraft noise committee of the Palisades Citizens Committee, and is the D.C. citizen representative on the airport noise committee of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
His goal is not to wipe out National Airport, but to work with it to make sure that flight paths and jets cause the least amount of noise for the residents who live in its shadow.
Thorp and his neighbors are working with airport officials to move flight paths along the Potomac River, rather than directly over homes. They're also working on new arrival and departure procedures that would allow for quieter flights. As for his home, Thorp hasn't done much soundproofing beyond the obvious: He long ago installed central air conditioning and he owns thick storm windows.
More important, he said, is staying active in the efforts between citizens and airport officials to work on sound-deadening procedures.
This approach to soundproofing is critical to residents who live in flight paths or near major airports. No amount of solid-core doors, after all, is going to stand up to the noise of a jet overhead.
"A good insulation package, air conditioning, window treatments and construction enhancements can have real serious noise-reduction benefits in a home. The problem is, if you enjoy sitting on a deck in places like Alexandria, Arlington or Palisades, it's almost impossible to enjoy the outdoors on summer evenings," said Dennis McGrann, executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, an advocacy group based in Montpelier, Vt., dedicated to helping citizens deal with noise issues. "You can't have a normal conversation with someone three feet away, thanks to the roar of a jet engine over your home. What is the price of that?"
McGrann advocates the same approach as does Thorp: Residents living near airports must make themselves heard and should work with airport authorities and politicians to push airports to adopt flight patterns and procedures that result in the least amount of noise possible.
While airports cause perhaps the most difficult form of outside noise, other sources -- busy streets, railroad tracks, home theaters, barking dogs -- also can be annoying. An entire soundproofing industry has sprung up to help owners deal with such frustrations.
A good place to start is with doors and windows. Older houses, especially, may have windows that leak sound. Homeowners whose residences have hollow-core doors will find that noise quickly travels through them. The best solution is to replace thin doors and noise-leaking windows.
Chris King, marketing manager for interior doors for Jeld-Wen, a Klamath Falls, Ore., manufacturer of sound-deadening doors and windows, said homeowners who replace their hollow-core doors with solid-core versions can reduce interior noise by up to 50 percent. He vouches for this: His home has Jeld-Wen's ProCore doors, the company's signature solid-core door, on its laundry room.
"We fire up the laundry machines, shut the door and can't hear anything," he said.
Pete Della Pietra, project manager for Gaithersburg-based Natelli Communities, has often dealt with sound-deadening challenges in his projects. He is currently working on an addition to a house that sits on a busy street in Bethesda. The owners requested thicker, double-pane windows to keep the street noise outside.
But he said he actually hears more requests from homeowners for ways to control the noise inside their homes.
"I get requests for heavy underlayments under hardwood floors so that someone walking on the second floor won't sound too loud above your head," he said. "People are now asking for thicker drywall throughout their homes. That gives a home a heavier, denser feeling. The more mass a home has, the less sound transmission within the house itself."
Della Pietra recently added spray foam to provide extra insulation to a customer's home office. Della Pietra's crew sprayed the foam behind all of the office's walls and ceiling to help protect it from outside noise.
"When you are in the room, you feel it. It feels . . . solid," Della Pietra said. "If he wants to work late or early he can without worrying about the sound carrying through other parts of the house. He can be on the phone, listening to music or have his TV on at odd hours and not worry so much about the sound disturbing the rest of the household."
Della Pietra's main advice to homeowners looking to deaden sound indoors is to do whatever is necessary to increase the mass of the areas they are trying to protect from sound. One way to do this is to install thicker-than-normal drywall in certain rooms. The standard thickness for drywall is half an inch. Owners who step up to drywall five-eighths of an inch will dramatically lower the amount of sound that seeps through.
Della Pietra also recommends that owners move from hollow-core doors to solid-core doors that are at least an inch-and-three-quarters thick. Windows should be double-pane.
There are other less-expensive measures. Owners can install underlayments beneath tile or carpeted floors that act as rubber membranes. These are effective mufflers of sound, Della Pietra said.
Those building new houses have the best chance to get a quieter home. Lerner, the builder from Bethesda, said owners can significantly affect the noise level in their homes by working with architects and designers from the start of planning.
Owners interested in a quiet home should avoid the soaring two-story rooms common in many newer colonials, Lerner said. Architects are now designing homes so that walls that butt up against common areas, such as in a family room or entertainment room, are used for closets, bathrooms and other spaces where quiet is not so important. Owners at this stage of the process can make sure appliances such as air-conditioning units are placed where they will cause the least amount of noise pollution.
"This is the time to wonder about things like the laundry room. Where can you put it so that you won't hear it?" Lerner said. "How can we use the closets in our bedrooms to shelter these rooms from the other sounds of the house? It's best to catch these issues at the design phase as opposed to ripping walls off and trying to insulate them."
Even though noise reduction is becoming more important, sound issues generally do not scuttle a home sale. After conducting an informal canvass of members, Amy Ritsko-Warren, manager of communications and media relations with the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, said soundproofing issues have not been deal-killers in the region.
Lisa Nonamaker, a real estate agent with Long & Foster Fair Oaks in Fairfax, agreed. "It seems that it's more of an issue inside the homes themselves than it is for outside noise," Nonamaker said. "The noise has not affected sales in this area."