An open floor plan can be the ultimate entertainment and family space. But add kids, a barking dog, a television, thumping bass from your sound system and someone unloading the dishwasher, and you’ve got a cacophony.
This is where understanding your tolerance level becomes important, says Steve Withey, president and CEO of Elite AV Innovations in Plano, Texas. Homeowners need to think about how they’ll use the space, whether they’ll be disturbed by the noise created in it and how they’ll mitigate that sound, especially if the room will feature audiovisual components.
Think of sound as liquid, says John Conroy, a founding principal at Princeton Design Collaborative in Philadelphia. Spilled water looks for a place to go, and will seep into cracks and spaces. Sound does the same thing. You want to give noise an escape route and places for it to be absorbed.
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Look at the Shape of Your Room
Room shape is one of the first things Bob Wetmore, a principal partner at Cornerstore Architects in Austin, Texas, considers when designing an open floor plan, particularly in rooms like this one. His clients were fond of hard surfaces such as concrete, metal and stone, which cause sound to bounce louder.
Wetmore’s clients wanted a clean, modern room, which meant no curtains, doorways or rugs to help deaden sound. To control noise, Wetmore lowered the ceiling over the island, creating a space for sound to be absorbed. The columns in the TV room were also wrapped in wood, which is replicated in the ceiling along the room’s periphery.
If noise is a big issue for a client, then Wetmore suggests that they break up their rooms, creating wide doorways between living areas to help contain sound, but still allow the rooms to flow together. In this example, the kitchen is in a pocket that opens to a living-dining room.
Consider Walls, Ceilings and Floors
This bookcase wall acts as a sound absorber because the books are soft and there are pockets just below the ceiling line to absorb sound, Wetmore says.
It’s important in great rooms to create peaks, valleys and pockets in the ceiling to diffuse sound, Wetmore says. Here, the ceiling is slanted over the living room and then drops over the kitchen.
Wall-to-wall carpeting or large area rugs, such as this one, with a high-quality, thick floor pad are effective at controlling sound bounce too.
You can also use panels backed with acoustical materials on your ceiling, shown here, which will help deaden noise, Conroy says. In this open basement, he also hung cork, an excellent sound absorber, on the wall.
Muffle Sound With Fabric
Interior designer Brad Ramsey discovered just how noisy an open, empty space can be when he moved into his unfurnished house and held a party.
“When I first moved into the house, it was fairly bare with furnishings and we hosted a housewarming party. It was deafeningly loud in the space,” he says.
An empty room is noisy, but start putting in furnishings, carpet and draperies, and it gets quieter. Ramsey used drapes in the same color as the wall to manage noise and add texture and interest without closing off the room in this loft-like home.
Use soft surfaces, such as upholstered furniture and pillows, to manage sound, he suggests.
For a few projects, Withey created fabric-covered canvases that are backed by acoustical material and hung as wall art.
Keep Your Options Open — or Closed
Another option is to make your open floor plan optional. Consider putting in doors, like these, or draperies to cordon off areas when needed.
Ramsey did this in a house where the entertainment room opened to the kitchen area. Instead of closing it off with a conventional door, which would seem confining, he proposed a large barn door that slides against the wall, keeping the entertainment area an active part of the kitchen. When the door is shut, the entertainment space becomes a separate, quieter room.