Builders use sound control to create soothing havens for buyers.

By Alison Rice

Bickering neighbors. Gurgling pipes. Booming movie soundtracks. Thanks to the shared walls of attached homes, high-density projects, and the introduction of home theaters, noise has become inescapable, even in high-end homes.

It's not until after move-in that the noisy reality asserts itself.

Seeking a competitive edge (or an end to customer complaints), builders are experimenting with sound control, addressing noise issues in everything from condos to million-dollar houses.

Ten years ago, I used to go out and tell people, 'Here are the things to avoid,' " says acoustical engineer Jerry Lilly, who advises Seattle-area builders on sound control. "Now, that's just the start. They want me to go out during construction to make sure the contractor's doing what he's supposed to. Then, when everything's done, I'm going back to test the units before they're occupied."

One of these sound-oriented builders is Burnstead Construction Co., in Bellevue, Wash. "We just know that nobody wants to hear their neighbors," says Brian Martens, project manager for the builder, which caters to empty-nesters. So the builder, which closes about 350 homes yearly, has put in double walls between townhouses, acoustic floor mats in condos, and costly but quiet garage door openers in attached homes.

Buyers -- particularly the experienced ones -- are also asking more sound-related questions. "When you have people who are coming out of a [single-family] home and moving close to people, the first thing they ask is, 'How's the soundproofing?' " says Roger Bright, owner of Louisville, Ky.-based Bright Properties, which closed 100 homes last year. "They don't expect it so much in an apartment, but they do when they're buying."

Indeed, 53 percent of buyers consider soundproofing essential or desirable in their new home, according to the NAHB's "What 21st Century Home Buyers Want" survey.

Desperately seeking silence

While the desire for a quiet home may be universal, some buyers do care more than others. For townhouse and condo prospects, it's an obvious concern. "If you're in a house, and your kids are upstairs yelling and screaming, you can go upstairs and tell them to be quiet," says Burnstead's Martens. "In multifamily, you can't do that with your neighbor, so there is zero tolerance for noise."

Empty-nesters are the same way. "They've been in and out of many homes, so they're sophisticated buyers," Bright says. "[Sound control] more than pays for itself in sales [with these buyers]."

The last group with limited patience for noise is luxury buyers, regardless of whether they're purchasing attached or detached homes. "As the price goes up, people feel entitled to more," says Chip Vaughn, president of Vaughn and Sons, a semi-custom builder in Wayne, Pa. "Noise is something they are less tolerant of."

The fastest-growing part of the sound-control market (at least for Denver manufacturer Johns Manville) comes from applications for single-family homes, according to Bill Blalock, group marketing manager for building insulation.

Among the areas being targeted by builders: the laundry room, master bedroom and bath, home office, children's play areas (such as a finished basement), and home theater rooms. In Florida, Toll Brothers puts sound-dampening Gyp-Crete between the first and second floors of its Boca Raton country club homes.

Blalock attributes the increase to the desire for peace and quiet in a hectic world. "Consumers are busier, and they're spending much more time at work. When they come home, they pay more attention to the atmosphere and level of comfort in their home."

Blocking noise

Unfortunately for builders, though, there?s no easy acoustical equivalent to the gourmet kitchen upgrade. Sound-control measures must be addressed early in the construction process through design, structural choices, and building products, forcing builders to include them as standard on more expensive product rather than as a high-margin option on an entry-level house.

And costs do vary. While some noise-control measures run only 60 cents per square foot, others can add as much as 2 percent to the home?s cost.

At Burnstead, Martens starts with design. ?We tried not to design bathrooms back to back with bedrooms, because that is the worst scenario ? most of the noise comes from plumbing pipes,? he says. Burnstead also uses cast iron for wastewater plumbing, quieting the sound of a flushing toilet or a draining bathtub. ?It?s very expensive, but it makes the biggest difference,? Martens says.

But mixing cast iron and plastic plumbing isn?t allowed by all building codes. In Philadelphia, Vaughn and Sons solved the plumbing problem with foam rubber insulating material, which is wrapped around the pipe where it enters the wall and makes any contact with wood framing. ?You have to cut off the ability of the sound to travel,? Vaughn says. The price is minimal, even for houses between 4,800 and 8,000 square feet. ?It?s not that costly,? he says. ?It?s just extra supervision.?

Other noise-control options include insulation, acoustical batts, acoustical caulk, and resilient channels (metal clips that separate drywall from the wood framing), all of which stop sound waves from reverberating through the house. Home theaters, of course, require extra attention, from acoustical wall panels to sound-deadening floor pads.

Construction methods matter, too. Concrete or concrete and steel buildings are much quieter than stick-built. ?In a wood-framed building, you?ll always hear people walking on the floor,? Lilly says.

Selling peace and quiet

Yet builders who use sound control in their homes have found the feature a tricky one to market.

?It?s a very hard expectation to describe,? says Vaughn. ??Quiet? ? how do you describe it? And in our business, meeting expectations is everything.?

Lilly agrees. ?There will always be sound,? he says. Leading buyers to believe otherwise (even by using ?soundproofing? rather than ?noise control? in marketing materials) can create excessively high expectations ? and customer dissatisfaction the first time they hear muffled voices through the wall.

But there are ways to highlight the feature. The Wormald Cos., a builder in Frederick, Md., constructed a sample party wall in the basement of a model townhome. It also provides handouts explaining different sound-transmission ratings and how its homes compare with others. Wormald sales reps even encourage prospects to do a little test of their own, allowing buyers to yell between floors and see how little sound travels in the home.

?Sometimes you have to get real practical,? says Ken Wormald, a company vice president. ?[Sound control] isn?t something people are used to talking about.?

?Alison Rice is a senior contributing editor.

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, June 2002