How to soundproof your home (and actually get your work done)

I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Mark Storm, Acoustic Services Manager at Dudek and Board Member at the Institute of Noise Control Engineering recently.

We spoke about the best ways to reduce noise when everyone is either working from home, at school or trying to get in precious downtime in a productive, polite manner. Most likely you’re running into your roommates now more than ever so this is a great way to keep the peace and pay special attention to everyone’s specific needs for quiet time.

How do you soundproof a room on a budget?

Mark happily suggested some common household items that might serve as a valid noise dampener as to not disturb other cohabitors.

“Hang blankets or quilts on the walls (or from the ceiling)—the thicker the better. These are good acoustical absorbers because the outer cotton or synthetic material lining looks and feels smooth but is porous and lets the contained fibrous or feathery fill inside absorb incoming sound energy. When covering a good portion of the room’s surface area, or even suspended from the ceiling like flags or banners, these quilts and blankets help reduce or dampen “reverberation” (the multiple acoustic reflections of sounds within the space) and result in sounds that are clearer and less harsh.”

If Mark is suggesting I make a blanket fort to help keep the noise down then I’m all ears. Apparently, being well-read can serve you in achieving this goal as well.

“Place bookshelves along the walls of the space. An open bookshelf or cabinet that’s partially ‘full’ will contain books and other objects that will help diffuse incoming sound and thus help avoid or reduce direct reflections on what would otherwise be smooth, flat wall surfaces. Sofas, beds, and other padded furniture can serve a similar purpose.”

Some other money-saving suggestions to keep things to a dull roar in your room are picking a nice thick throw rug for your hardwood floors, hanging thick drapes on your windows, and picking up door jams or installing a DIY threshold blocker with old clothes, blankets, foam tape, or towels if you’re really in a financial jam.

Why is blocking the door so important?

The expert in acoustics Mark Storm passes along this pertinent information.

“Chances are the room’s walls are well-built and have little or no sound insulation ‘leaks’ and the interior door to the room is likely solid wood or a sandwich of materials that should block sound; however, the small air gap formed by lack of contact between the four-sided perimeter of the door panel normally hung in the doorway allows sound to sneak into and out of the room. Although doing so may compromise some passive air ventilation into and out of the space, filling these cracks or air gaps with foam tape reduces or eliminates these sound insulation bypasses and thus recovers the door’s sound insulating performance.”

How do you politely signal you’re in the “work zone” with interior design?

No one wants that uncomfortable conversation or annoying text from a housemate to keep it down because they are in the middle of an important conference call. Luckily there are visual cues and ways to set up “work-friendly spaces” in your apartment to subliminally enforce that quiet rule minus the awkward confrontations.

Mark drives home that point succinctly in this quote next.

“Thoughtful design or arrangement of uses within a space can help clarify what one might call ‘administrative’ methods of noise control. For example, if a room has many visual cues that tell an occupant that one corner is clearly all business and not play, then that conveys an expectation of quiet when someone is there and actively using that space for that purpose. If the ‘office’ seat is empty, then that expectation of quiet goes away. Hence, the key to this ‘on/off’ switch is the clarity of these visual or design cues, reinforced by stating expectations that are clearly understood by any room occupants or visitors. Conversely, a space that may appear too ‘blended’ (or due to lack of attention, is just messy) and does not feature easy-to-see functional boundaries will not convey those expectations nor help reinforce any that are stated.”

Any other suggestions for keeping a quiet shared space tension-free?

There are some habits that are louder than others, such as talking loudly on the phone with friends, for a conference call, and honestly speaking up to communicate a passionate point in a school lecture. Everyone is on Zoom or connecting on the phone nowadays so it’s especially important to mind the decibel level of your voice on these calls as our voices tend to carry farther than most other acoustics.

“It seems that by default, and perhaps subconsciously to avoid being asked to ‘speak more loudly’ or as a way to boost self-confidence, people tend to raise their voices on the phone and in other settings. Plus, when there are already conversations in the background, people will speak more loudly to hear themselves and help ensure their listeners can hear and understand what they’re saying. This is why a shared office, restaurant, or other interior space where multiple people may assemble and talk becomes increasingly loud over time. The need to speak loudly, especially with today’s decent audio fidelity on most hardware and software platforms that are allowing us to communicate over the Internet, is thus probably an overused practice… we can all ‘turn things down a notch’ by speaking at a quieter level. And the act of consciously speaking at a quieter level almost compels a more relaxed and tension-reducing environment.”

Speaking with dulcet tones is preferred and with most BlueTooth technology headsets can pick up what you’re saying without screaming into the phone or a computer monitor.

Another tip to have a quiet peaceful environment when trying to sleep with other noise in your house at night is to close your door and crack open the window. Mark leaves us with this last piece of advice.

“A doors-closed, windows-open scenario could therefore be effective at night, when the outdoors may be quieter, and the noise of concern is indoors and being blocked by the closed interior door.”