As an urban dweller, noise pollution is an issue that affects me on a daily (and nightly) basis. We've been in our current San Francisco apartment for three years—the day we moved in was quiet and the location off the main street provided the right amount of noise buffering while being close enough to the action. The short of it: our neighborhood has changed. Between the street noise, echoes from adjacent back buildings, and new neighbors who seem to stomp through life, it's getting harder to sleep, write, and relax in my own home.
Whether you're like me—a renter without an option to move—or a home owner wanting to tone down your own rooms, here are some easy tweaks that can help bring on the silence.
Above: A bedroom in West Sussex with a noise-muffling canopy made from dowel rods and fabric.
1. Find creative ways to absorb sound. Affixing cork board, heavy wool yardage, or insulation material to the underside of tables can help counteract bad acoustics. And it's a solution that, when done right, is out of plain sight. Using fabric on walls and ceilings in creative ways can also absorb sounds in rooms. In addition to the homemade bed canopy shown above, two good examples: a series of repeated slack tea towels on the ceiling of Coin Laundry in Melbourne and Lars Frideen's sound-muffling perforated metal cork board for the walls of Leila's Shop in London.
2. Bulk up with rugs. Laying down a single area rug in a room with hardwood flooring can make a world of difference, and it's wise to add a rug pad underneath—to protect the rug and add to the noise reduction. Another option for rugs that are thin, jute, or of small dimensions is to layer them. For more on using rugs the right way, see Expert Advice: Q & A with Ben Soleimani, the Rug King.
Above: Sarah's solution for shoe clutter by the door? A large Provençal market tote.
3. Institute a "no shoes" policy at home and encourage upstairs neighbors to do the same. Eliminate the clunk of boot heels and wooden clogs and everyone will thank you. Plus, the health benefits are undeniable: A study done by microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD, revealed that the outside of a shoe contains an average of 421,000 units of bacteria, including E. coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae (responsible for bloodstream infections and pneumonia), and Serratia ficariac, which can cause respiratory tract infections (Baltimore Sun). My inner Woody Allen is twitching at the very thought.
4. Keep room temperature in mind. For those without the coveted Nest Thermostat, maintaining a comfortable temperature level may require simple planning. If you live on a noisy street and need to close your windows at night, be sure to open windows to bring in fresh air and cross breezes earlier in the day.
Above: Heavyweight linen curtains serve as room dividers and noise bafflers in this loft in Tribeca by architects Fearon Hay.
5. Keep outside noise out with acoustic curtains and double-pane windows. After investing in a set of sheer Belgian linen curtains of the gauzy variety, I asked myself, "What was I thinking?" I should have gone for burlap. Heavy fabrics and curtains with sound-absorbing technology, like Annette Douglas' Silent Space collection, are standard city-slicker tricks. When it comes to the windows themselves, replacing single with double-pane windows helps deaden outside noise. An alternative is to use weatherizing strips (like the All-Climate Weather Strip for Small Gaps; $4.98 from Home Depot) to seal off noise leaks around the window. Adding a thick window film to the glass can also bulk up the buffer between you and the noise; the heavier the film, the greater the barrier.
6. Invest in a pair of noise canceling headphones. Bose QuietComfort Headphones ($299 from Amazon) reduce noise across a wide range of frequencies using microphones inside and outside each ear cup to sense and reduce unwanted sounds. After nights of quiet radio programs and foreign films in competition with upstairs clomping, I'll take two pairs.
7. Sleep in a womb of white noise. Waking up to the sounds of nature may be the ideal. But in a city, tuning out the outside world often calls for the help of a machine. Several of my friends swear by Marpac's Dohm Sound Conditioner ($38.24) to cancel noise pollution and even cure insomnia. For more, see 10 Secrets for a Better Night's Sleep.
8. Plug your ears. Sometimes the simplest, least expensive solution does the trick: light sleepers should find a set of comfortable earplugs. There are a lot of varieties out there; the cotton-wrapped beeswax kind, like Boules' Quies Ear Plugs, conform to the shape of the inner ear and have a soft exterior; $9 for a box of seven pairs from Amazon.
Above: In a Chelsea loft by Delson or Sherman Architects of New York, full-height steel and etched glass doors provide acoustical privacy.
9. Include sound proofing in your next architectural plan. Some examples of sound proofing done right: Jérôme Vincon of Lode Architecture's black rubber floors in a pitched roof Normandy cottage, Delson or Sherman Architects' glass solution shown above, and restaurant Garagistes' EchoPanel acoustic paneling made from recycled PET bottles.
10. Or get your contractor on it. Look into soundproofing ceilings between floors with your contractor. (Walls and doors, too, can be sound proofed.) To delve into the options, you can join a series of message boards like Contractor Talk and watch YouTube videos. You'll discover that noise the world over annoys.
Have any tips I might have missed or an experience to share? Let us know in the comments section below.