Whether remodeling or building anew, awareness of sound design principles can prevent unwanted sounds from giving you a headache in your own home.

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Q: My wife and I like to host dinner parties, but our dining room is right next to the main-floor bathroom and the sound of plumbing ruins the atmosphere. What can I do to keep intrusive sounds at bay?

A: Unwanted sound can greatly diminish the enjoyment of your home. Whether you’re considering a minor remodeling project or building from scratch, you will want a skilled designer who utilizes sound design principles to create an ideal acoustic environment. These include:

Bathroom separation

Bathrooms should be located as far away from living areas as possible to ensure discrete access and minimize unwanted noise. Drain lines for upstairs bathrooms should be located away from living areas below. For bathrooms that cannot be ideally placed, sound-deadening materials in walls and around drain lines can help reduce the sound of rushing water. And while pressure-assisted toilets are becoming more common, be sure you can listen to one flush before you commit to buying — they can be loud!

Sound-deadening fixtures

Some low-flow shower heads can be rather noisy, so install these on walls unshared with bedrooms or living areas and wrap the piping inside the walls with sound-deadening materials right up to the shower head.  Faucets can also produce unwanted sound, so test them before you buy. More expensive fixtures are usually engineered to allow water to silently pass through them at any flow rate. This is especially important in kitchens that are open to adjoining living areas.

Quiet appliances

A common feature of many homes today is a great room with an open kitchen. This means you’ll need appliances that can be used while dining or watching television nearby. A quiet dishwasher, vent hood, refrigerator or microwave will cost extra. But if they are part of a whole-kitchen remodel or new home, their portion of the overall construction cost is usually small enough to justify buying quiet models. It is not unusual for the automatic ice maker in a home freezer to make a startling sound when producing ice.

Soft surfaces

Hard surfaces will reflect more sounds than soft surfaces. Stone, tile and hardwood flooring are very chic materials and look fabulous, but using these materials can result in a harsh acoustic environment. Mitigating measures include the use of heavy rugs, upholstered furniture, heavy fabric draperies or even fabric wall coverings.

Ceiling acoustics

A living space with high ceilings will be a much better acoustic environment than a room with a ceiling just 8 feet high. Since the ceiling is often the largest reflective surface in a room, the farther that sound energy must travel to reach it, the more the sound dissipates, resulting in a reduced noise level. Providing a modulated ceiling surface will help dissipate sound; features such as exposed beams, coffers or soffits add aesthetic value and improve the acoustics.

An enjoyable acoustical environment is an essential component of design. Obtrusive sounds can be very stressful, and you’re exposed to them whenever you go out into the world. You don’t want to be stuck with them where you live. So, make sure your designer knows acoustics. Sound good?


Philip W. Frisk, AIA, is Principal at PWF Architecture and is a member of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties (MBAKS). If you have a home improvement, remodeling or residential homebuilding question you’d like answered by one of the MBAKS’s nearly 3,000 members, write to homework@mbaks.com.