The dollars and sense of sound room acoustics

What’s easy on the eye in a property, isn’t always easy on the ear. Many of the features we’ve grown to covet – open plan living spaces, floor-to-ceiling glass doors, stone benchtops and shiny timber floors – can wreak havoc on a peaceful soundscape once you get behind closed doors.

Large rooms – especially those with concrete, tile or timber floors – can create the dreaded “cocktail party effect” and turn domestic noises like kettles boiling, fridges humming and people walking into an amplified racket that prevents intelligible conversation.

“Sometimes the noise is so bad that people can’t talk to each other or hear the television,” says Jimi Ang, acoustic engineer of Blackett Acoustics.

This living space has a digitally printed acoustic screen to minimise noise from the tiled floor. 

Soundwaves might be invisible, but once they start reflecting, the human ear can’t ignore them. And that usually means someone has to pay to fix the loud and annoying sound issues.

“In 90 per cent of cases, people only realise they have an acoustic problem once they move in – no one ever thinks about it before they buy or renovate,” says Philippe Doneaux, the inventor and product developer who founded Acoustica.

“Then when they can’t hear people at their own table or have a conversation on the telephone, it can be a real problem.”

Architect Richard Cole designed this fireplace screen to break up the large open space in Angophora House.

Architect Richard Cole designed this fireplace screen to break up the large open space in Angophora House. Photo: Simon Woods

Doneaux says apartment dwellers are the biggest victim of acoustic problems – particularly due to noise transmission between floors – followed by renovators who have just spent big on a new open plan living area.

“I get a call every other week from an apartment owner who can’t stand the thumping noises from people walking upstairs,” says Ang.

“When people do the inspection they think how nice the apartment is and they don’t listen for anyone walking around upstairs. Then they move in, and all they can hear is thumping.”

The problem is exacerbated by apartment owners wanting to remove carpet to install timber or tiled floors.

“Carpets and curtains are still very good to improve acoustics,” says Doneaux.

So, what solutions are available for those wanting to fix acoustic problems?

A tapping test is like the acoustic consultant’s stethoscope – it’s the tool of choice to diagnose the extent of the acoustic problem and suggest the best solutions.

The tapping machine tests the noise, reverberation and reflection levels in the room allowing engineers to propose the best solutions to rectify the problem.

Unfortunately, there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution for acoustic issues and specific recommendations need to be made for each property.

Many strata title owners’ corporations insist on tapping tests if an apartment owner wants to remove the carpet and install timber or tile floors.

Ang says the problem is that most people don’t want to pay for the tapping test – it can cost between $1200 and $1600 – and simply splurge on buying the most expensive underlays and flooring and cross their fingers.

“I always tell people to get the tapping test done before they take up the carpet and do it again after, because then you have a result to compare it to,” says Ang.

“Instead, I see all these people having problems with the strata because even if they’ve bought the most expensive underlay, the new floor is transmitting noise.”

Architect Richard Cole blames acoustic problems on the careless design of boxy spaces.

“The main strategy is to break up the space so you don’t have big reflective surfaces that face each other,” he says.

Cole specialises in designing houses with large open spaces, using timber and glass.

“We often do things like have exposed rafters to break up the ceiling space or we use perforated plywood or plasterboard with an acoustic blanket behind it,” Cole says.

While there are many solutions available, Ang concedes that prevention is better than cure. “You’re better to avoid the noise problem in the first place than try to fix it afterwards”.

The acoustic antidotes

  • Carpet, rugs, cushions and curtains are the best soft furnishings to absorb sound and stop it bouncing around a room.
  • Acoustic art panels: strategically place some sound absorbing panels behind a digital or hand-painted piece of artwork.
  • Acoustic ceilings can be created with stretched fabric over acoustic blankets.
  • Acoustic-rated plasterboard can be used to replace traditional gyprock.
  • Try to have screens, bookshelves or panels that can break up a large space to stop the sound reflecting so harshly.
  • Water features and running water are a soothing antidote to harsh acoustics
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Homes