While the intangible sound waves can seem daunting to anyone without prior knowledge, it is vital to understand their power to change what we hear and how they are impacted by the height of your ceiling. A question asked by home buyers, builders, renovators and interior designers alike… do high ceilings reduce noise?
So many of us are impacted by noisy rooms whether that is amplified by open floor plans, lightweight home construction, noisy machines or neighbours.
There are solutions however as it is the 21st century and rooms can seem louder and noisier than ever.
So to a question asked by home buyers, builders, renovators and interior designers alike… do high ceilings reduce noise? The answer is No. Where there is more space due to high ceilings, the sounds are going to be even louder as well as more intrusive and intense.
High ceiling rooms are not good for acoustics.
Sound is lost in the ‘dead space’ above our heads leading to increased volume. The sounds often echo due to higher reverberation times – sound waves travel a long way before connecting with a hard surface.
While this may seem very scientific to the ‘average Joe’, the theories are in fact easy to understand and simple to apply and recognise in the rooms around you.
So whether you are happy with you are looking to redecorate, buy a home, build a home or are just interested in the topic, there are ways in which to make the most of the acoustics in your home and workspace.
How Sound Travels
The sound comes from the energy that is produced when an object vibrates, creating waves in the air. We hear these sounds via the sensitive membrane in our ears (the eardrum) which detects these vibrations and enables our brain to register them.
Bass frequencies (low pitched sounds) have long wavelengths and are harder to block out than treble frequencies (high pitched sounds) due to the way that the materials they contact absorb or reflect them. The sound waves are impacted hugely by the materials they come into contact with and therefore lots of the solutions you will read below include materials with high absorption rates.
But remember, there is a difference between sound and noise – noise is unwanted!
How Does Loud Noise Affect You?
Individuals that have experienced any degree of hearing loss, will find it hard to communicate in rooms with high ceilings and poor acoustics unless something is done to create good acoustic performance in these expansive spaces.
Even if your hearing is perfect, you will find it hard to hear a conversation with the background noise of a TV, for example, or the sound produced by noisy neighbours (we have all had them!). This will later affect your concentration and levels of wellbeing.
Ultimately it can affect your quality of life!
Consequently, improving the acoustics in high ceilinged rooms that are public or communal should be considered a necessity rather than a luxury.
Why do you want Good Room Acoustics?
- Concentration – it is hard to determine the source of the sound when it travels from lots of directions. This disruption can have a huge impact on one’s concentration. Good acoustics mean that the brain can understand the source of the sound easily and therefore focus on the task in hand.
- Communication – when a room contains lots of excessive noise, the sound of a voice gets lost, resulting in poor speech intelligibility (you cannot understand what the person has said. This is made even worse by the hard surfaces in the room which cause the sound to echo and bounce of said surfaces. Communication between individuals then becomes hard, affecting the hearing and understanding of the conversation. A room with good acoustics allows communication to take place effectively, even with background noise. According to research(1), 70% of consonants spoken by teacher’s cannot be heard by pupils. If this is the result of poor acoustics in a room, how can we expect the next generations to be learning effectively?
- Audiovisual technology performance – linking to the necessity of effective communication, this technology, including conference equipment such as microphones, is very sensitive to the problem of poor acoustics in a room, specifically high reverberation. This technology can often be expensive, and users expect high-quality performances from it. The result of sound waves bouncing off hard surfaces is the bounce-back of speech through the listening equipment after the real-time speech has been already heard. The listening party will therefore find it difficult to hear due to the distorted echo surrounding the message. Good room acoustics are therefore essential to ensure that soundwaves are appropriately absorbed and communication over this technology can be highly effective.
- Productivity – leading on from increased concentration and communication, a room with good acoustics can increase productivity. A room with poor acoustics affects morale as well as concentration and communication meaning workers can be less productive in their roles. According to resonics.co.uk, 70% of employees believe they would be more productive if they worked in a less noisy environment, showing the importance of reducing the impact of poor room acoustics. This shows that good acoustics are vital in working environments.
- Creating a comfortable environment – lots of noise at uncontrolled levels such as when many people are talking or moving means the sound waves bounce off and are amplified by surfaces in a room with poor acoustics. This can in turn create an uncomfortable environment where one cannot work, listen or relax. A room with good acoustics creates a feeling of luxury, comfort and cosiness.
- Privacy – a certain degree of confidentiality is required in most spaces whether it a doctor’s room, lawyers office, bank consultation room or café. A room full of hard surfaces compromises this privacy between room users or users of adjoining rooms because there is nothing to absorb the sound waves of voices, and so they travel. A room with good acoustics helps secure these voices and maintain one’s privacy.
So, what can you do about this?
A simple clap test in the middle of your room will help determine whether you need to take any of the following steps to ensure good acoustic performance in your high-ceilinged room.
If the clap comes back crisp, sounding as if someone clapped at almost the same time as you, the acoustics in your room is effective. If the clap comes back distorted or echoing, try installing one or more of the following improvements.
Some installations are sound-blocking (stopping the transfer of sound) and others are sound-absorbing (soaking up the sound to prevent its transfer).
Hard surfaces such as wooden or tiled floors reflect the sound waves and magnify the sounds produced on the floor, for example, the footfall of individuals or the moving of equipment or furniture. The solution here would be to install carpeted floors as well as underlay (under the carpets) to help suppress floor generated noise and reduce hollow echo sounds.
Gypsum plasterboard is a very common wall material however they reflect 95% of sound waves rather than absorb the waves. This means that the noise is amplified and distorted, coming to the ears from multiple directions. While one may assume putting up material curtains would help soften these walls, they in fact don’t help much because they are not thick enough to absorb the sound waves.
Instead, while not a cheap option, layering with plywood panelling can also help to provide the absorbing materials needed to reduce the noise in a high ceilinged room. Plywood panelling comes in a variety of colours and designs, as is often used to make a room more modern looking and abstract. It should be noted that no solution will be cheap, and that effectiveness should be researched more than cost.
Decorative acoustical wall panels made of fibreglass are easy to install via glueing or clipping to moulds. They can add character to a room while also effectively reducing noise.
Sound absorbing wall tiles like these ones, can be placed over the top of plywood panelling are a popular option too. Some are made from recycled materials making an eco-friendly option.
They are odourless, not irritating and very lightweight therefore not causing damage to the room or wall. However, they do seem to be ineffective for high frequencies.
The thicker they are the more effective at absorbing sound waves they are, however, this also means they are heavier and harder to install. Too much detail or too many hangings can also make a room seem cluttered and untidy, therefore wall hangings may not be the best option, or even the most aesthetic.
Ceilings should be treated as a fifth wall. One option to reduce the acoustical effects of a high ceilinged room is to install acoustical, ceiling tiles (like these suspended vinyl tiles that can be configured in the minimalist of extravagant designs is popular) or spray the ceiling with acoustical plaster – while these options increase light reflectivity, they can give the room a commercial look. Fabric covered false beams made of fibreglass also result in acoustical absorption. Hanging lights and fans can also help.
Rooms with high ceilings should be furnished with soft padded items to help improve acoustical performance.
Sound blocking doors help prevent the movement of sound through the building. This is one of the easiest and least expensive soundproofing measures you can take. Solid doors will block sound better than hollow doors.
Reduce Multiple Noise Sources
The noise of many people talking or moving, machinery, phones, air conditioning and music, are all intensified by the high ceilings, resulting in the Cocktail Party Theory.
This refers to the difficulty in understanding speech in noisy social settings. The solution here would be to put workers in separate or small group compartments to help reduce sound travel. The compartment walls could also be made of sound wave absorbing plywood panelling to help reduce the poor acoustics in a high ceilinged room.
To conclude, rooms with high ceilings amplify sound and therefore can make unwanted noise sound louder to individuals. There are ways to reduce these negative effects of a beautifully high ceilinged room however when researching the best plywood panels or furnishings or floating ceiling panels, one should priorities effectiveness over cost. In short, there is no cheap way to solve this issue.
Whether the room is a working office environment or a family home, the height from floor to ceiling will have a great impact on activity occurring in that room. Interior designers, builders, homebuyers, employers, construction teams and architects should consider the mighty impact of sound and the ways in which it can be controlled for user comfort, productivity, privacy and the necessity to communicate.
- A guide to room acoustics (2020) Resonics; https://resonics.co.uk/guide-to-room-acoustics