Sorry, I can't hear you over my open floor plan
Wide-open spaces are popular in homes — but also super loud. New design elements may help restore the peace.
Architect Frank Greenwald and his wife, Laura, show off their room divider. // © Gordon M. Grant
The modern home: spacious, open, airy, gleaming — and noisy.
Trendy open floor plans, where rooms aren't separated by walls, mean voices carry. Hard surfaces such as granite countertops, ceramic tile and hardwood floors can also amplify sound. Modern mechanical systems — powerful range hoods over big gourmet stoves, for instance — can be deafening. Meanwhile, the old standbys for dampening noise in a room, such as wall-to-wall carpeting and thick drapes, can feel dated. (Bing: How to create an open floor plan)
"If you have a large room with big windows, a high ceiling and a minimalist kind of look, you're going to have a problem, guaranteed," says T. Jeffery Clarke, an architect in Princeton, N.J. He says homeowners and architects sometimes are so focused on the nitty-gritty of a construction project that something intangible, such as the acoustics, "often gets ignored."
New options available
Interior designers, homeowners and architects are coming up with a host of solutions to create temporary nooks while keeping a big, open feel in a room. Shades are getting a new look as slick-looking screens, offering homeowners a way to create makeshift enclosure. "Skyline" gliding fabric panels, made by window-shade manufacturer Hunter Douglas, slide on a track to divide a room. The panels "stack back" when not in use.
This past fall, the company expanded the line by 15% to include more than 300 colors and textures. Since then, sales have grown 40%.
"Most new floor configurations favor open space versus defined rooms," says Joe Jankoski, vice president of merchandising. "[Sometimes] there's a need to close parts off."
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"There has been a shift in the idea of open spaces," says Jennifer Abernathy, trend expert for Newell Rubbermaid's Levolor brand of shades, Jennifer Abernathy. "We saw homes become very open. [Now] people are turning back to wanting more intimate and personal interactions."
Sag Harbor, N.Y., architect Frank Greenwald says that family and friends visiting in the summer can turn his house into a raucous place.
"There are usually a lot of people," he says. "It can get noisy, and everyone always wants someplace to escape to."
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The area comprising his open kitchen, dining room and living room had to be considered carefully, he says. He chose white linen floor-to-ceiling curtains that ride on a track between the kitchen and dining room, closing off the dining area for a "formal" setting, Greenwald says.
In the living room, a custom stereo system has six speakers strategically placed in different parts of the room to help disperse sound evenly. To help bring out "pure tone" from the speakers, acoustical consultant Bonnie Schnitta recommended up to 2 inches of compressed fiberglass behind the bookshelves to absorb sound and dampen echoing. The fiberglass also helps keep noise from carrying to other rooms.
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Sliding glass doors, typically used as entryways to a garden or patio, are now used more indoors. Sales of these doors as room dividers have doubled in the past three years, says John O'Meara, strategic business-development manager for the U.S. arm of German manufacturer Häfele.
Meeting design challenges
Margarette Lee, 50, is a real-estate developer who lives with her husband and 14-year-old son in a Manhattan penthouse apartment with 11-foot ceilings and an open floor plan; no walls separate the kitchen. A sofa converts to a bed in the living room to accommodate visiting family.
Lee says she felt that the space called for some privacy screening, particularly for her mother-in-law, who visits from South Korea each year and typically stays for about a month. When she visits, she enjoys sleeping in a room near her grandson, Lee says, but also cherishes her quiet time to knit, crochet or read.
"I wanted some sort of door to cordon off" the room, says Lee, who also didn't want the permanence of a wall — or to lose the big, open feeling of the space.
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She decided on sliding glass panels with aluminum frames, made by Weiland Sliding Doors and Windows of Oceanside, Calif. Each of the six panels is ¼-inch-thick white glass that offers privacy while still allowing light to come through. They move along a recessed track in the floor. When not in use, they stack behind a cabinet, and "nobody notices they're there," Lee says. The custom installation, designed by architect Mark Stumer, cost about $25,000.
For Peter and Tammy Harvey's central New Jersey basement, the couple wanted the expansive feeling of an open floor plan that also felt seamlessly connected to other parts of the home.
"We wanted it to look like the rest of the house — not a basement or a 'man cave,'" says Peter Harvey, 54, an attorney.
Harvey's interior designer, Robin Wilson, who managed the $160,000 project, drew up a plan with "zones" blocked out in different colors.
"One of the key elements in creating an open plan is demarcating 'rooms' without walls," she says. Mapping out those zones helps create privacy without visitors feeling swallowed up in a big space or unable to hear conversation. In Wilson's plan, an otherwise-ordinary hallway became a music-listening lounge area, with inviting leather armchairs and records displayed on custom shelves.
A stairwell leading to the basement might have looked like an obstruction, but Wilson considered it a "good visual divider" between a kitchenette and a home theater, with a 93-inch projection screen. Guests can relax on kitchen bar stools without feeling engulfed by any adjacent movie-watchers.
To isolate theater noise from the rooms above, extra soundproofing went into the bones of construction.
"We wanted whoever is downstairs to feel they could listen to whatever movie they want," Harvey says. "Action films have car chases, explosions."
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Wilson suggested a layer of acoustic "wedgeboard" — a sheet of foam with egg-shaped ridges — glued to the kitchen subfloor. It works, Harvey says. Noise from downstairs gets muffled, and "doesn't disturb what you're doing in the kitchen."
Sometimes, the best kind of noise control comes from putting your foot down. Greenwald favors opera music and jazz, while his 25-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter gravitate to rock.
"When the kids come over, it's usually a fight," he says. "But I win because it's my house."