If you are among the estimated 50 percent of employed Americans who have been working from home during the pandemic, odds are noise has become an issue. Street traffic, leaf blowers, a downstairs neighbor’s television, barking dogs and rambunctious children might not have bothered you much in the before times when you were gone all day. But now it’s a maddening racket, breaking your concentration and disrupting your virtual meetings.
It’s worse when a roommate or spouse is working at home with you. You hear more than you want of their telephone calls and keyboard clicks, not to mention their sighing, scratching, tummy gurgles and hiccups. Housemates, including children and pets, breach workday boundaries in a way colleagues never would. It’s enough to make even open office designs, the corporate equivalent of a mosh pit, seem like oases of calm and quiet.
But it’s possible to create a work space at home that’s sound limiting, if not soundproof. Soundproofing requires major reconstruction (tearing out, fortifying, floating and re-insulating walls, ceilings and floors), which most people are not willing or able to do. But sound limiting is easier and less expensive. While you won’t achieve total silence, you can soften or muffle noise enough to be productive and maintain some semblance of sanity.
Working against you may be the prevailing contemporary design aesthetic. Wood, tile and polished concrete floors; stone and granite countertops, spare furnishings, high ceilings and open floor plans are great looking but a nightmare of echo and reverberation. Such interiors actually magnify whatever noise exists and make it even more intrusive no matter where you are in the house. Noise canceling headphones and white noise machines can only do so much.
Just ask Jordan Fowler, the director of business development for a law firm in Houston. She’s working from home with her husband, infant twins, a toddler and two rescue dogs. Her fluid and open one-story house has tile floors throughout so even if she’s in the home office that she shares with her husband, a data engineer, she hears all manner of child and canine commotion. When she has an important call, she retreats to her toddler’s room, which is carpeted and has lots of cushy surfaces: “I find that I can hear and listen better in there.”
Rugs, upholstered furniture, textile art and throw pillows are your friends when it comes to sound control. Sound waves bounce off firm, flat surfaces like drywall, stone, wood or steel creating a cacophony of reflected sound. But sound waves push into softer surfaces like felt, foam or wool. “There’s friction so the sound wave dissipates as heat and less noise returns to the room,” said Scott Sommerfeldt, a physics professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
For this reason walk-in closets can be ideal spaces for makeshift offices. All the clothes and linens provide natural sound absorption. Indeed, Gabra Zackman, a Queens-based audiobook narrator, is using a closet as a recording booth while she waits out the pandemic.
“I wound up in a house with my mother and four cats in Westchester and the quietest space was my father’s old coat closet,” Ms. Zackman said. She took out half the coats, nailed fleece blankets to the walls, piled up pillows and set up a small desk with her recording equipment. “I’m recording for major publishers out of a closet,” she said.
If you want to achieve the same effect with less claustrophobia, you can line a room with sound absorbing wall panels and ceiling tiles, which are easy to install on a temporary or permanent basis. The cost ranges from $20 to $75 per square foot, depending on the design and degree of absorption. Some are sculptural and have magnetic interlocking pieces that look like colorful lozenges, puzzle pieces, or even natural moss. You can also get the panels printed with art or photographs you select yourself. But even hanging cork tack board or nailing Berber carpet to the wall can soften the sound in a space, as can bringing in some large and leafy potted plants.
If you are sharing a home office with someone, you can dampen sound and increase privacy by setting up felt-wrapped partitions, sound screens or acoustic curtains available from vendors such as Turf Design, Herman Miller and Soundproof Cow. And if the door to your office is hollow, consider replacing it with one that’s solid core. Or, you can cover a hollow door with sound blocking material like mass loaded vinyl, which will only set you back about $2 per square foot. Just be sure to seal the edges with acoustic seals and sweeps. Otherwise, sound will just seep through the cracks.
To prevent noise outside the house from getting in, consider installing soundproof windows, which are typically multiple layers of treated glass with gaps in between. While expensive ($400 to $1,000 per window, depending on the size and thickness), they essentially subject sound waves to so much resistance that noise collapses from exhaustion before it can enter the room. And bonus: soundproof windows are energy efficient and thus, often tax deductible.
A few years ago, when Jonathan Fields, an author and entrepreneur, wanted to create a quiet space to record his Goodlife Project podcast, he installed four layers of acoustic glass on the window of a small room in his Manhattan apartment. Even though the window faces Broadway and is above a subway stop, Mr. Fields says the room is sometimes referred to as “the womb” because “it’s so peaceful, nourishing and nurturing.” The space currently doubles as an office because the pandemic has Mr. Fields, his wife and college-aged daughter all working from home. “It’s become a place for Zoom calls or business calls because it’s quiet and it’s private,” he said.
Another option is to have serenity delivered. Companies like VocalBooth, Studiobricks and WhisperRoom specialize in so-called acoustic booths. These are essentially prefabricated, aquarium-like rooms that you can place within a room for a quiet place to work. Originally intended as recording and practice spaces for musicians, acoustic booths have evolved to also serve as meeting rooms within noisy industrial facilities and as quiet spaces for tech companies to test various voice-activated or other sound sensitive devices.
“The big shift we’re seeing with Covid is people calling saying, ‘I’m stuck at home with my kids and I need to have a quiet work space,’” said Freddie Gateley, vice president of sales at VocalBooth, Inc. in Bend, Ore. “I can see how we might save some marriages.”
Depending on the size and sophistication, the cost of an acoustic booth runs from about $2,000 to $10,000, plus shipping. They arrive in pieces and can be put together in a weekend with tools available at your local Home Depot. The booths don’t require a building permit and can be disassembled and transported if you move — or finally get to go back to your real office. Who knew you’d miss it so much?
Kate Murphy is the author of “You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters.”