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The Productive Home Office - Stop The Noise And Enhance Productivity

By Brian Ravnaas, Technical Innovation Manager,
The Green Glue Company

Working from home is, for many, the ultimate work experience.  No commute, no dress code and no one looking over your shoulder.  According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 4.18 million Americans worked from home, almost 23 percent more than reported in the last census.  And that number is expected to continue to grow in the 2010 census as companies cut costs and offer more flexible hours to employees.  Adding to this is the trend of those working in traditional offices to "telecommute" by taking more and more work home with them.

Sound-based distraction and interruptions are a very real challenge for those working from home, and is an often overlooked consideration when setting up a home office.  Household and neighborhood sounds can pour into a home office and disrupt work.   Sounds of a midnight conference call to far off time zones can escape from the office, waking family members and even neighbors.

Many find out only after renovating a home space into an office that all of the advantages of working from home are negated by challenges presented by noise. Fortunately, soundproofing a home office is a simple and relatively inexpensive way of fixing these problems. And, contrary to common misperceptions, this solution is right for anyone not just Hollywood moguls and wealthy recording artists.  New technology has allowed soundproofing to be possible for contractors and DIYers on modest budgets.

It's Easier Than It Sounds...

Mass loaded vinyl barrierReducing noise entering and leaving a home office has gotten easier as new technologies have entered the market.   The evolution of soundproofing technologies can be generally traced from very bulky, material-heavy solutions that required a complete renovation of a space to more advanced lighter materials that require little or no deconstruction to an existing structure.  What path you take depends on budget and whether or not you are dealing with new construction, heavy renovation or light renovation.

Sound-absorbing material, for example, can be stuffed between joists and studs and then walled over. Many materials are available for this purpose, including cotton batts, mineral fiber batts, and low-cost commodity fiberglass insulation batts, which work as well as the others  (to make sure it points back to the other absorbing materials) at a very low cost.  This is one of tGreen Gluehe rare cases where pinching pennies won't put the pinch on your results!  These materials provide a very basic level of soundproofing that dampens many sounds but tend to be less effective for lower bass tones.  In addition, their use depends on access to wall cavities, which exists only during new construction or extensive renovations.

On the other end of the spectrum, viscoelastic compounds (such as Green Glue) used in and between drywall are one of the most effective means to eliminate the full spectrum of sound frequencies, from high frequency sounds to low bass sounds that are normally resistant to other forms of soundproofing. Viscoelastic compounds dissipate vibrations in room structures by converting them into tiny amounts of heat. The material comes in tubes that can be dispensed easily and applied with a second layer of drywall right over existing finishes and textures..

Noiseproofing ClipsDecoupling clips are another method of reducing how vibrations pass through a wall.  These clips separate two sides of the wall to reduce sound transmission by allowing one side to vibrate independently from the other. Use of staggered studs, double studs, resilient channels or sound clips can isolate sound and reduce noise transmission.  They work very well in tandem with viscoelastic compound.  In fact, using both methods can reduce 95 percent more noise compared to conventional construction techniques alone.

Sealing any cracks or gaps between floors and ceilings using a special soundproofing sealant will further reduce noise transference between floors.   Small cracks and gaps may seem insignificant, but can be major contributors to noise transmission.

What About The Doors?

Doors are the forgotten link in the soundproofing chain.  To maximize soundproofing, the doors may need to be modified or replaced.

There are interior doors available that are designed for higher sound isolation, but they are typically very expensive so are beyond the budget of many people.  For example, a solid-core door (which can weigh over 80 lbs) offers much more sound isolation than a lightweight hollow-core door.

 Low-pressure spray foam insulationA much less expensive route is too improve the door you have.  The first goal to decrease the amount of air movement around the door when closed.  (Yes, soundproofing and weatherproofing are similar in execution.)

There are typically three places on a door that need sealing.

  • Seal around the door frame (graphic right). 
    This will require removal of the door trim on one side, but it's worth it since there is usually a gap between the door frame and the wall stud which allows sound to leak through.  Though you can use caulk or fiberglass insulation, a modern low-pressure expanding polyurethane foam, available in aerosol cans at any hardware store, will give you the best possible seal.
  • Apply weatherstripping so the door seals tightly against the frame when closed. 
    There are various types of weatherstripping and ALL will work as long as they firmly contact the door completely around the perimeter.  (TIP:  Softer weatherstripping works better since it will compress more easily and less likely to prevent the door from latching if you install it a little too tightly.)
  •  Seal the gap between the door and the floor. 
    This is the biggest leak and is also the most involved fix.  One way of doing it is to add a board or threshold on the floor that the door closes against.  Add weatherstripping to this board as well.  You can also install a raised threshold that is under the door.  You can purchase an adjustable weatherstrip that will press against the threshold when the door is closed.
    If your floor is uncarpeted and smooth, a rubber or brush-type gasket that is attached to the door bottom and "sweeps" along the floor can be effective.

second way of going about sealing the door is to use an exterior frame with an interior door as exterior doors already come with weatherstripping etc.

Once the door is sealed, the next step to improve its sound isolation is to address the door itself.  Without getting into double doors etc, there are basically two ways of doing this:  1.  Add mass 2.  Add damping.  You can do both of these by adding a layer of common plywood, osb, drywall, or particle board etc to the door with a layer of damping material such as Green Glue or Decibel Drop.  By doing this, you will add the step of having to refinish the door.  If that's not possible, using a solid heavy core door will be much better than a lightweight hollow or foam core door.

Replace the door??  It could be easier!

Replacing a typical interior door/frame with an exterior door/frame may work in some situations and, since the frame includes weatherstripping completely around the door and most hollow exterior doors are filled with expanded foam insulation, adding more sound suppression than a wood door.

Finishing touches...

Decorating touches such as curtains, shades and carpeting or rugs can further reduce noise from entering and leaving a room.  All in all, these are simple steps can maximize your investment in soundproofing.

Choosing What's Right

Depending on the stage of renovation you are in, you can make informed choices about installing soundproofing. For example, if you are completely gutting a room (i.e. removing the walls to the bare studs) you may want to consider using all of the elements listed above.  Gutting a room provides easy and inexpensive access to most, if not all, soundproofing components from batting to viscoelastic compound.

Take advantage of this opportunity to do everything you can to soundproof the office if you're starting from scratch.  Adding elements now will be easier than down the road when walls will have to be torn down to achieve the same results.

If you're not planning on gutting a room or building a new home, you may want to consider using viscoelastic compound alone.  This compound can easily be applied to drywall and then affixed to existing drywall.  This step, plus adding carpeting can significantly reduce noise entering and leaving a room for minimal time and money.

Is it worth it?  You bet!

Whether you are self-employed or working for a company that allows or even requires a home office, investing in that environment certainly pays off in productivity and flexibility.  Soundproofing a room can be completed by a home owner or contractor in a weekend with minimal skill level and budget.

These changes can ensure that the space is isolated from the rest of the family and neighbors.  In addition, most renovations to home offices are tax deductible.  Check with an accountant, but soundproofing an office is a business expense that is 100 percent deductible while it also improves the rest of your home and lifestyle.  Finally, soundproofing adds value to not just business, but also to your home.  A soundproofed office could be viewed by potential buyers not only as a workspace but as an ideal home theater or nursery.  Whatever the case it is a unique selling point.

For a relatively small amount of time and money, soundproofing a home office offers improved quality of life, greater productivity and a higher home value.  That is an ideal combination that many do not consider when setting up shop from home.

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