Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - August 27, 2010

Positively Green

The healthy sounds of silence

by Iris Harrell

I have lived in some of the quietest environments and some of the loudest environments in my many past lives. And ironically, I am in the construction business, which conjures up thoughts of loud jack hammers and heavy equipment.

Over the years, I have come to dislike unnecessary noise and go to great extremes to avoid or prevent unwanted noises. (We've had a "no radio policy" on our jobsites for more than 25 years.)

I grew up as a young child in the middle of a rural pasture in North Carolina. Quiet was the norm. I have taught school on the Navajo Reservation in the Four Corners area high up on a very quiet bluff.

In contrast to that, I was in a traveling band for five years and played loud music every night. My ears were still ringing until just before we started playing again the next night. Unfortunately as a bass guitar player, I stood right next to the drummer. That I can still hear any noise at all is nothing short of a miracle.

When my parents moved to suburbia to escape the quiet, "boring" country life, they proudly got us a TV that was always turned to a high volume with shows having canned laughter. While I enjoyed watching "Gunsmoke" and the "Dick Clark Show," I loathed hearing the TV when I was not watching it.

It is impossible to think, write or complete anything productive when I am smothered by din I have no control over. I would leave the house as a child and walk or bike long distances outside, just to be quietly alone and away from my siblings and parents. I desperately missed the original quiet environment I was first exposed to as a child. Is it any wonder I love living in Portola Valley, where the nights are dark and the sounds of silence feed my soul?

Of all the books on green issues I have read, I've only found one author who has addressed the issue of noise as a green issue and a health issue. British writer Alan Berman has written "The Healthy Home Handbook: Eco-Friendly Design." He has dedicated an entire chapter to sound and points out that unwanted sound may cause stress and even illness, and excessive noise may also increase one's heart rate. He has concluded that a healthy home needs to be a quiet home.

The stressful part of loud noise is usually due to our inability to control the source. Physical damage to the ear may be caused by prolonged exposure. (How many Baby Boomers do you know who went to numerous loud rock'n'roll concerts?)

There are steps you can take to reduce the unwanted noises you have no control over. Here are a few suggestions.

1. If you live by a railroad track, think about buying special glass windows to effectively reduce the noise of the train passing.

2. On boisterous occasions (July 4, New Year's Eve), using a white-noise sound machine or radio with white-noise options while you sleep will help alleviate the excessive clamor.

3. You can ask people to remove their shoes when they are guests in your home. The click of high heels often sounds like the military is coming through your home!

4. You can insulate your home with special batts and sound board to reduce the transfer of sound and vibration.

5. If your washing machine sounds like a jet landing in the room next door, putting an absorbent rubber or felt pad under the machine will decrease the sound from the vibration during the spin cycle.

You may also think about placing them on the ground floor instead of upstairs, which often helps reduce the vibration noise.

6. Specify cast-iron piping, instead of PVC plastic pipes, and/or add insulation and sound boards to prevent or reduce the sound of toilets flushing and the swish of water rushing through your pipes.

7. When designing a remodel, design bedrooms to be far away from the TV room or the kids' play rooms. Another idea is to place the closets between two bedrooms, thus providing more sound privacy.

8. Encourage your family and yourself to spend more time outside, possibly in your garden or at nearby parks. Enjoy the stillness, the gentle hush of the breeze as it tickles the leaves of a nearby tree or the quiet hum of insects as they make their merry way from one flower to the next. Rejoice in nature's resonance.

9. You can choose to spend more time with quiet people who like to read and listen.

Life is too short to miss the wonderful sounds of silence.

Iris Harrell is CEO and president of Harrell Remodeling, Inc. in Mountain View (www.harrell-remodeling.com). She can be reached at 650-230-2900 or irish@harrell-remodeling.com.

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