Those hard-edged interiors in swanky homes magazines – sleek, minimal rooms with timber floors and high ceilings – might be easy on the eye, but not the ear.
An open plan kitchen and living area full of harsh surfaces has the acoustical performance of a conversation-killing restaurant where chairs scrape the floor and cutlery clangs deafeningly on dinner plates.
Acoustica founder Philippe Doneux says sound waves reflect off hard surfaces like CaesarStone or stainless steel benchtops, glass bi-folding doors or traditional gyprock walls. Those sound waves bounce around so rapidly that it takes only fractions of a second to make normal conversation unintelligible.
“It’s called the cocktail effect,” he says. “The sound waves increase all the time, bouncing back and making the noise levels go up.”
People rarely consider the soundscape of a home and only discover they have a problem when reverberation or noise transmission problem makes it difficult to carry on a conversation, according to Dr Ros Bandt, a sound designer and founder of Melbourne University’s Australian Sound Design Project.
“I’ve been lecturing to fifth year architecture students about this, because many architects don’t think about it,” she says. “People only discover it’s a problem when they live with it and the noise is bouncing straight off their stainless steel bench.
“There is something to be said for the old days when people had discrete spaces for different activities.”
Back in the days when Laura Ashley was the height of style and carpets, curtains and comfortably stuffed armchairs were found in every home, acoustics were rarely a problem. The reverberation of those pesky sound waves was absorbed by soft furnishings.
Now, installing sound-absorbing products is a burgeoning industry, due largely to our minimalist modern decorating tastes.
Acoustic Answers’ Mark Skeldon says his business continues to grow as more new houses and renovations are built with open plan living rooms and furnished with timber, metal and non-upholstered furniture.
“I can’t tell you how many calls I get from people who’ve just completed a renovation only to discover they can’t hear their big-screen television when the wife gets up to put the kettle on,” he says.
Artist Mary Brunton founded Acoustic Art after discovering the poor acoustic performance of her new home affected her hi-fi obsessed partner’s enjoyment of his music. The graphic designer created art which is printed on sound-absorbing acoustic panels and deadens the sound in echo-ey, live-sounding rooms.
Acoustica is a consultancy, designer and manufacturer of Australian-made acoustic products and Doneux says much of his work comes from home owners who have just completed an expensive renovation.
Acoustica offer a range of different solutions to solve reverberation problems – sound-absorbing panels, ceiling and wall materials and engineering advice – to help home owners living in ear-rattling spaces.
A product called Quiet Wave is an acoustic gyprock that costs around $120 a square metre instead of the $180 a square metre of traditional gyprock. “Sometimes we can replace a section of a gyprock wall to improve the sounds in a room,” he says. Another solution is the Kliptex fabric-covered sound-absorbing panels which cost around $160 to $180 a square metre plus the fabric.
Acoustic Answers offers simple grey or white sound-absorbing panels that cost around $70 a square metre. “They are very plain – which doesn’t suit everyone – and the rule of thumb is that you need to install the panels on between 30 and 50 per cent of the total ceiling area of the room,” he says.
“Those panels will do the same job that carpets and curtains used to do. Acoustics is really a dark art – once you start talking about decibels, RW and reverb, people go ‘huh?’.”
Brunton says trial and error is the best way to improve the acoustics of a room, and she suggests around five square metres of Acoustic Art canvas in a room can significantly improve the sound.
“To be honest, it’s carpet and curtains that can make the biggest difference – but no-one seems to like them anymore,” she says.
This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.