First, a warning: you are never, ever going to make your home or any room inside it soundproof.
Well, that is not quite true. You could construct a room inside a room – this being the only way to really soundproof anything. But it is a major construction project. You’ll need sound-insulating hangers to isolate the joists that support your Russian doll of a room. You’ll need to clad the entire thing with dedicated acoustic panels. You’ll need special air-conditioning to provide ventilation without fan noise – while simultaneously preventing sound coming through from outside.
It is not easy. And, frankly, nobody except a kidnapper, recording engineer or neurotic French author is likely to need that kind of high-end sound-proofing. Short of that extreme standard, though, there are practical things you can do – not only to make your house sound quieter, but also to make it sound better.
The first thing to do does not require any construction skills or materials whatsoever. It is to work out where noise is coming from and seek to distance yourself from it. Think about the noise you make, as well as the noise you can’t help hearing. Is your bed beside the window? Put it against a wall. Is your toddler’s bed on one side of the wall, and your teenager’s stereo on the other? Swap things around. Could a bookshelf be placed against the wall on the other side of where your TV sits? Could the TV be placed further away from the fireplace? A flue conducts sound up to bedrooms above just as it well as it conducts smoke up to the chimney-pot… Could the TV be taken off the wall, or at least have its sound routed to external speakers? A speaker that touches a wall transmits much more noise to the room behind than one which is free-standing.
Many of the noises that most annoy people come from within. But many of those are easily solved. A creaking floor can be screwed down, or better supported with a new joist. Gurgling radiators can be bled, or re-balanced. Knocking pipes can be cured (for a time at least) by draining and refilling the system, or fitting a pressure-reducing valve. A noisy extractor fan can be replaced – fans have got much, much better in recent years. (The gold-standard is a “noiseless” in-line fan, which sits somewhere down the pipe, rather than right over the vent in your bathroom.)
Disturbing noises from the outside mostly come through the window. Double-glazing is the obvious solution, but it is expensive. Renovating a window can also be very effective. Sash windows, for instance, can have little brush strips added; they cut out a huge amount of noise along with the cold air. If that is too expensive, try heavier curtains; they can make a massive difference. And try filling gaps in leaky windows using stick-on insulating strips. It’s easy, cheap and surprisingly effective – because most noise, except low-pitched bass sounds, arrives through the air.
If you want to cut noise, block the air. Cracks can be filled, joints caulked with silicone. Some gaps are easily forgotten, though. Ducts and vents are often placed high up or in corners. Sound can leak through electrical sockets and recessed ceiling lights and ceiling speakers – the last can be a problem even when they’re not playing anything. Many downlighters cannot be acoustically insulated as they produce a lot of heat; if you want to stop them letting in noise, then, you may have to replace them with fire-rated LED lights that specifically allow insulation. Or remove your downlighters altogether.
Not all sound travels through the air, of course, and short of blockading the road you will not be able to stop vibrations coming from nearby traffic or passing trains. Short of buying their flat, you will not be able to stop the people who live upstairs from walking up and down (though you could of course ask them to put in carpeting, which can cut as much as 22 decibels; you should also quietly check the lease to ensure that their flooring is not in breach).
Even if you cannot stop noise of this sort, you can reduce it. Fences and hedges have a part to play. Dedicated acoustic insulation is available in all kinds of shapes and materials and for all kinds of purposes – from ceiling tiles to joist underlay via wall-cladding. Just be careful that you are getting what you pay for: the premium on shaving off a few decibels may be quite high, and some ordinary insulation will give you a good deal of the benefit at very little of the cost.
While you are busy reducing noise, don’t forget about the quality of the noise you make yourself. Hard floors are enduringly fashionable in kitchens, which is where many of us eat, but alongside hard walls and ceilings they create very reflective – and therefore very noisy – spaces. This is especially exaggerated in rooms that lack the cushioning effect of sofas and other kinds of upholstery. If you find mealtimes noisy, with everyone competing with everyone else, it might not just be about manners, it might be about acoustics too.
You don’t have to invest in wall-to-wall carpeting. A big rug is usually far cheaper – and you can wash it, and take it with you when you move. A curtain instead of a venetian blind might make a significant difference. Try a piece of fabric pinned to the wall instead of a poster, perhaps, or scatter a few cushions here and there.
Because if you want your room to sound like a concrete bunker, decorate it like one. If you want it to sound like a library, however, think about how a library looks. Libraries are quiet not just because people use them quietly, but because the walls are lined with books – thick, heavy, sound-absorbing, hush-inducing, calming books.