Wednesday 28 September 2016

Living the quiet life thanks to acoustic fittings

Published 10/06/2016 | 02:30

Ginkgo acoustic wall panel.
Ginkgo acoustic wall panel.
Rugs such as these from Carpet Vista can work on the floor or wall
Koket wall rug
Poppy Szkiler
Rug from John Lewis

With the rise of noise pollution in the home, acoustic fittings have never been so popular.

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The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.

The house was quiet and the world was calm.

Wallace Stevens' poem describes a moment of solitude in a quiet house. It was published in 1954, before the age of noisy household appliances and heavy traffic.

The reader in the poem was not disturbed by the bleep of the dishwasher or by push notifications from a smartphone. There's no mention of an extractor fan or an air conditioner, or even a fridge. The house was quiet and the world was calm.

These days, that rarely happens. We live in a noisy world. The World Health Organisation (WHO) rates noise pollution as the second most pressing threat to public health, next to air pollution.

You'd like to think that the noise stops once you get home, but it often doesn't. Annoying noise can come from outside the house - traffic sounds and neighbours are the worst culprits - but also from household appliances and poor sound insulation.

A survey undertaken by Quiet Mark in 2013 estimated that 62pc of people were adversely affected by the noise from their household appliances, while 41pc complained that noise within the home disturbed their sleep.

"A washing machine can sound like a train coming through the kitchen," says Poppy Szkiler of Quiet Mark. "Often we find ourselves shouting over layers of technology that we're not aware of."

At that very moment my elderly washing machine cranks into a vigorous spin cycle. She's right. It makes a dreadful racket. I close the kitchen door, which muffles it a bit, realising that the whole family is in the habit of pausing in conversation so that the washing machine can finish its business.

Quiet Mark, as Szkiler explains, is an organisation that gives approval awards to encourage noise reduction in everyday household appliances. If you see the purple 'Q' symbol on a vacuum cleaner or a kettle, it means the machine has won a Quiet Mark Award.

This is handy because, although you can inspect the visual design of an appliance in the shop, you rarely get the opportunity to plug it in and hear what it sounds like.

"A lot of technology is overdesigned. We don't really need the bleeps and beeps to tell us where the machine is in its cycle," says Szkiler.

"I'd like to think we're moving towards a new era where sound design is given the same consideration as all the other aspects."

Quiet Mark is associated with the Noise Abatement Society, a charity founded by Szkiler's grandfather in the 1950s. It came from a response to public complaints on the charity's national noise helpline regarding the excessive noisiness of household technology.

"My mum took over running the charity when my grandfather died," Szkiler explains. "The pair of us sat down at the kitchen table and worked it out. It's difficult to mount a campaign against something like noise that you can't actually see. You need a positive reward system to encourage manufacturers to design quieter products."

Can anybody remember desperate parents offering a 'quiet prize' to rowdy children on a long car journey? Quiet Mark works on more or less the same principle. The quietest one gets the prize.

There are EU regulations regarding sound but, according to Szkiler, they tend to be based on decibels alone. "Decibels are only a fraction of the truth about the way we experience sound," she says.

"Some sounds are loud, but not that annoying. And some are almost unbearable even though they're not that loud. We use a very sophisticated testing system that takes all that into account."

The listing of products on the Quiet Mark website includes retail partners like John Lewis, as well as brands that offer acoustic fittings for the home. Although many of the products are expensive, an increasing number of affordable items are beginning to make the grade.

"We've just finished testing kettles and there were two winners - a Prestige kettle for around £30 (€38) and one from KitchenAid that costs around £130 (€168)," says Szkiler.

Open-plan living, the trend for removing or doing without internal walls, also has an impact on noise in the home. The traditional sound insulators - thick curtains and wall-to-wall carpets - aren't particularly fashionable.

A typical home renovation is likely to take out the internal walls, lay down hard flooring throughout the space and opt for some minimal window dressing. It does create a sense of light and space, but all those hard surfaces can amplify the bangs and crashes of daily life.

"The choice of flooring can have a dramatic effect on sound," says the interior designer Mary Taylor. "Tiles and laminate can be very noisy." Sound-friendly alternatives include "luxury vinyl" from Moduleo (available from Taylored Interiors).

It comes in wood and stone-effect, costs between €35 and €55 per square metre, and has a European standard for noise reduction. "It's slip-resistant so you can use it throughout open-plan spaces and it looks just like a natural floor."

Large rugs (available from retailers like Carpet Vista) provide good sound insulation, either on the floor or wall-hung like a tapestry, and textured wallpaper can also reduce noise. "Even putting paintings on the wall can help," says Taylor. "You'd be surprised how everything in a room contributes to the way sound behaves in that particular space. Sometimes solving the problem is a matter of small incremental changes rather than an overarching solution."

Acoustic panelling, like the Ginkgo panelling from Stone Designs, is designed for office spaces but can be adapted for use in the home. "The designs tend to be on the plain side but it's an area that we can expect to see develop over the next few years."

By that stage, we'll probably have washing machines that emit gentle birdsong while they spin.

See quietmark.com, ie.johnlewis.com, tayloredinteriors.ie, carpetvista.com, stone-dsgns.com.

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