Story at a glance:

  • People can be exposed to an unhealthy amount of noise pollution, but acoustic insulation can combat this.
  • The demand for acoustic insulation and products has increased over the past decade.
  • There are several types of acoustic insulation ranging from wall insulation and panels to ceiling trellises.

Noise pollution can have a significant impact on people’s health. Those living and working in cities are especially vulnerable. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 40% of the European Union’s population is exposed to road traffic noise with an equivalent sound pressure level exceeding a healthy amount. At night, more than 30% are exposed to noise levels that are disturbing to sleep.

Controlling outside noise isn’t always possible, but acoustic insulation can offer valuable solutions.

Acoustic insulation can be especially useful when installed in separating floors and walls between spaces in a block of apartments or an office building. Sound insulation boards or granulate can also be applied to reduce the  noise coming into an environment, according to the experts at ROCKWOOL, a manufacturer of stone wall insulation.

Acoustic insulation solutions are also growing in demand. “Over the last 10 years there has been a growing interest in acoustics … supported by an explosion of new, more accessible products to be able to tune spaces and achieve these [acoustic] standards,” said John Johnston, director of systems development at Arktura, in a previous gb&d article.

There are a wide variety of products out there, ranging from ceiling baffles to panels and partitions. This guide to the types of acoustic insulation solutions includes the many sustainable options and how you might use them.

Stone Wool Insulation

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Photo courtesy of Rockwool, Getty Images

Wall insulation can come in many forms. ROCKWOOL manufactures sound insulation across applications like roof, floor, ceiling, and HVAC.

ROCKWOOL sound insulation can be applied using acoustic insulation rolls, slabs, boards, granulates, or batts. For example, after building a stud wall frame, stone wool insulation can easily be slotted between spaces to reduce sound transmission between adjacent spaces.

One of the easiest ways to incorporate sound insulation is during building or renovation. For flanking sound transmission, a ROCKWOOL sound insulation slab can be fitted around cables, pipes, and sockets without leaving gaps that would otherwise reduce performance.

Wall insulation can also help reduce the energy used by buildings.

“A high-performing building envelope—which includes quality insulation—is the best way to reduce energy consumption and improve a building’s energy efficiency. Reducing energy demands in buildings by improving the envelope and then generating renewable energy to satisfy the remaining requirements is the most efficient, cost-effective way of decarbonizing society and supporting a socially equitable energy transition,” Sophia Rini, director of public affairs and communications of ROCKWOOL, told gb&d in a previous contribution.

Controlling the acoustics of the built environment is done by either blocking or absorbing sound, such as with a sound barrier wall with acoustic insulation inside. Most design plans include a combination of both to reduce the transmission of unwanted direct sound. When it comes to blocking interior sound, the experts at ROCKWOOl say the materials selected to support the acoustics objectives matter as much as the design of the space itself.

Sustainable materials can easily be used in wall insulation. ROCKWOOL’s products are made from stone wool. Stone wool is created by spinning molten rock and minerals with steel slag to create a wool product. Pressed into rolls and sheets, stone wool creates an incredibly effective insulation with sound-absorbing and fire-resistant properties.

“It’s right there in the name. Our products are made from stone—the most abundant natural resource on earth and fully recyclable. You might hear us talk about harnessing the natural power of stone; that’s because our stone wool insulation carries many of the same properties as the raw material. They are lasting, durable, and resilient,” Rini told gb&d.

ROCKWOOL products are also tested by five third-party certifying bodies including: UL, Intertek, QAI, ICC-ES, and FM. Many stone wool insulation products from the company are also GREENGUARD Gold–Certified, a designation that places stringent limits on emissions of more than 360 volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Fiber Insulation

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Greenfiber’s wall insulation starts as a plant material, is made into paper, and reused as insulation. Photo courtesy of Greenfiber

Companies like Greenfiber offer a wide array of options for soundproofing your walls. Fiber insulations can be blown-in or spray-applied to multiple types of walls, floors, and ceilings. Soundproofing your walls with an insulator not only helps with noise reduction—it can help with normalizing temperatures and improve indoor air quality.

Greenfiber uses a low-energy manufacturing process for its insulation products. Furthermore, the application process generates little to no waste or byproducts because the company leverages recovered material to start with. Greenfiber reuses upcycled paper as insulation and has diverted approximately 160,000 tons of paper from landfills.

Wall Board

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Most of National Gypsum’s PURPLE products are available nationwide, either in stock at major stores or easy to order and arrive within days. Photo courtesy of National Gypsum

Soundproofing is also possible with products like National Gypsum’s SoundBreak products, which stop noise from bleeding through to other rooms without the need for any prior demolition.

These include the SoundBreak XP Wall Board, which is installed between walls and can help protect your walls against moisture, mold, and mildew. Another noteworthy sound board is the SoundBreak XP Retrofit Board, which allows users to apply it over existing walls.

“SoundBreak XP offers superior sound damping to keep noise out, so it’s perfect between hotel rooms, office spaces, doctors’ offices, and more. This line includes a Retrofit product with all of the same benefits as SoundBreak XP, but that reduces waste, too,” John Bianchi, National Gypsum system products manager, told gb&d previously.

National Gypsum also offers its SoundBreak XP Ceiling Board that reduces noise between floors. This ceiling board is about three-quarters of an inch and is for floor-ceiling assemblies.

Acoustic Panels and Partitions

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Bring a natural touch to any office space by pairing natural light with Vapor® Bloom by Arktura. Photo courtesy of Arktura

Acoustic insulation solutions can also come in the form of panels. These products can reduce sound as well as add a unique visual design to a space.

“The installation of wall panels is key to mitigating sound refraction, echoing, and reverberation that can affect the listening experience,” Juan Carlos Bolomey, Primacoustic product manager, said in a previous story for gb&d.

Primacoustic manufactures a variety of acoustic products such as ceiling panels, bass traps, and broadway panels. The company’s paintable or Nimbus “cloud” products are ideal in rooms with interesting exposed concrete or with HVAC systems that designers don’t want to hide, Bolomey says.

Essentially localized drop-ceilings and customized cloud panels from Primacoustic can be placed over a specific area (say, a conference table) and hung at different heights and angles. Depending on ceiling height, Saturna hanging baffles can also be deployed. “Those can be very effective,” Bolomey says, “because as sound travels through the room, it has a lot more velocity. When you install baffles within areas where sound is moving fastest, they can help to reduce the energy of that sound as it moves through a space.”

Placed horizontally or vertically and at different heights, baffles can be even more effective than tiles because sound is mitigated as it’s traveling and before it reaches the ceiling or walls. Complementary in their acoustical functions, clouds and baffles are often used together.

FSorb, a polyester acoustic wall and ceiling panel manufacturer, has also developed cost-effective, durable, environmentally friendly solutions.

“With the trend for open ceilings and a lack of physical barriers or walls, acoustical treatments need to satisfy the needs of the people residing within the space,” said FSorb CEO Doug Bixel. “In an office setting, it is common for teams to work on a particular project for a period of time. These teams are often situated with another team next to them. Their ability to be heard within their own team and not be distracted by the adjoining team is critical. As I examined this trend, I found that ceiling materials can be placed directly overhead of these noisy areas in patterns that diffuse and block the sound coming from the neighboring team.”

FSorb specializes in acoustic wall and ceiling panels made from recycled polyester plastics that are up to 81% post-consumer. FSorb acoustical panels are extruded, recycled polyester with no fiberglass or adhesives shaped that are formed with heat. The panels are easy to cut, shape, paint, screen print, and hang. FSorb panels are also designed to be recycled at the end of their life.

Acoustic panels can also add to biophilic design—whether those panels are wood or aluminum. Arktura creates acoustic products that help support biophilic design by bringing in color and materials that connect people with nature.

“Arktura’s acoustic products contain these environmentally friendly and sound dampening properties. Award-winning designs feature biophilic elements such as Vapor Bloom, which brings life to a space through nature evoking patterns that resemble leaves and petals. Vapor Sky emulates a cloud-like pattern, bringing the sky indoors, while Vapor Hue Flora features layers of organic prints over perforations to elicit a biophilic floral landscape,” Ricardo Ortiz, brand experience copywriter and communications lead at Arktura, wrote in a previous contribution to gb&d.

Workplaces that thrive on both individual and collaborative work can benefit greatly from products like Arktura’s SoftGrid acoustic baffle systems. These can be placed throughout an office floor or concentrated in clusters over breakout areas or collaborative workstations.

Arktura also offers partitions like SoftScreen that can easily and decoratively divide smaller work areas from each other, offering patterns with both full and partial division.

Coffered Ceilings

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SoundStar® ceiling baffles with Custom Delta Drop® and Soft Sound® surfacing by Arktura welcome patients in the lobby of a One Medical building designed by Callison RTKL in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Wade Trenbeath Productions Photography

Coffered ceilings are defined by their architectural details with a series of rectangular, square, or octagon grids in three-dimension sunken or recessed panels or acoustic trellises. Installing a trellis in ceilings is achieved by intersecting beams on a ceiling into a grid pattern.

These ceiling styles are an excellent alternative if you’re looking to add depth to a room, as they can make the ceiling appear higher than it is. This technique not only adds an illusion of visual impact to a room but can also be used to create focal points, segment a room, or even lengthen a room.

“Usually made of wood, these decorative beams crisscross to create a square or rectangle design, with more ornate grids of hexagons and octagons also a choice. Initially found in ancient Greek and Roman buildings, coffered ceilings seem to be having quite the renaissance now. Because they offer both form and function, coffered ceilings have stood the test of time,” Keith Berry, associate director of architectural systems management at Arktura, wrote for gb&d.

Coffered ceilings and acoustic trellises don’t always have to be made of wood. Those looking for alternative materials can utilize products like Arktura’s PET (polyethylene terephthalate) trellises.

“Materials like felt wool and PET can offer superior acoustical performance to wood and at a fraction of the cost, weight, and environmental impact. PET has become an invaluable tool in building toward a more sustainable future,” Berry says. ”This super recyclable polymer is made of the same material as a typical plastic water bottle, but this super plastic has practical applications ranging from packaging to electronics, high-performance fabrics, and even Arktura acoustical products.”

Arktura’s SoftSpan® system of acoustic trellis systems also fit the need for alternative material ceilings utilizing Soft Sound® acoustical material. This collection features innovative acoustic baffle arrangements that deliver the look of coffered ceilings or large timber trellises without the weight, all while reducing the impact of noise across any interior space. SoftSpan is available in an array of finishes and materials, including a lineup of Soft Sound Wood Textures to replicate the character and warmth of timber ceiling trellises.

Fabric Treatments

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Photo courtesy of FabriTRAK

Fabric treatments for walls and ceilings are both beautiful and helpful in reducing unwanted noises in a busy room.

FabriTRAK’s line of sound-dampening fabric treatments for walls and ceilings work to absorb anywhere from 75 to 95% of reflected sounds. In addition, designers who use FabriTRAK’s wall fabrics can achieve strong acoustics without sacrificing beauty, thanks to many color and texture combinations.

“No one likes to speak above a certain octave level,” said Lou D’Angelo, president and CEO of FabriTRAK, in a previous interview with gb&d. “You need to modulate sound by having a material finish that absorbs reflective sounds and makes a room pleasant to speech.”

FabriTRAK cloaks the dome of the lobby at the Waldorf Astoria in Orlando, creating a focal point for the space and making conversations below intelligible. The company also developed a material worthy of the Declare Label—an eco-friendly stamp of approval declaring a product’s lack of Red List ingredients. This is paired with  a PVC-free track (called GeoTRAK) to create a complete system of green products.

FabriTRAK also engineers eco-friendly infills and fabrics. Both used as acoustical infill, EcoTACK is made of formaldehyde-free fiberglass and TerraCore Poly is made of recycled polyester. EcoSPAN is a 100% recycled fabric that can be color-matched to virtually any Pantone or paint chip. “The entire system is Red List-free and VOC-free,” says Steven Frost, vice president of FabriTRAK.

Acoustic Underlayments

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Photo courtesy of REGUPOL

Flooring and underlayments are another type of acoustic insulation. Underlayments can use materials such as rubber, concrete, or cork and reduce noise in spaces where there is heavy foot traffic or equipment being used.

For buildings in bustling areas—like architectsAlliance’s 55-story Clover on Yonge residential building in Vancouver—acoustic design has to be a top priority. REGUPOL, a manufacturer of rubber solutions, installed isolation material installed between the walls of Clover on Yonge.

REGUPOL created recycled rubber flooring and carries a full line of acoustic underlayments. Their Vibration 450 material is made from 93% recycled content and was designed to decouple the building from the foundation, greatly reducing the transmission of noise and vibration.

Today’s minimum requirements for sound transmission between dwelling units and other public areas in a building can be found in Section 1207 of the International Building Code. In a typical floor/ceiling assembly, the code minimum for sound transmission class (STC) is easy to achieve with materials like gypsum concrete. Gypsum concrete is created by mixing sand and gypsum composed of hydrated calcium sulfate. It occurs mainly in sedimentary deposits and is both mined and synthetically produced from cleaning the combustion gases of coal-burning power plants.

“The best way to dampen airborne sound, or STC, is mass, and the best mass is a high-density, crack-resistant cementitious material without control joints,” says Alex MacDonald, manager of strategic accounts for USG. “With hard surface floor coverings like vinyl plank, ceramic tile, or engineered hardwood on the other hand, the IIC (Impact Isolation Class, which measures a floor assembly’s ability to absorb impact sound) will always fall below the code required 50 IIC when there is no sound mat. Placing a sound mat under the gypsum concrete decouples the gypsum concrete mass from the framing, ultimately making the difference between meeting or not meeting the IIC requirement of Section 1207.”

A sound mat and gypsum system can be applied under any type of flooring. “Right out of the box, USG’s Levelrock underlayment is going to meet code and allow you to use any floor covering you like,” says Chicago-based architect Adam Thoma of HKM Architects + Planners. While there are flooring products on the market with sound backing, they can be costly. “Gypsum underlayments installed over sound attenuation mats are very cost effective. That is the reason we use them,” Thoma says. “It is our go-to system and makes our lives easier.”

Mass timber projects can also benefit from concrete materials. A Maxxon Acousti-Mat® sound mat topped with a Gyp-Crete® underlayment can help by offering a high-performance sound control system that doesn’t affect aesthetics. Gyp-Crete products are available in several formulas to meet the cost and floor strength requirements of any job.

“While often used in wood frame construction, our high strength underlayments are also excellent for smoothing concrete slabs or precast planks in new and renovation projects. Our Gyp-Crete products are typically poured at one inch deep over our Acousti-Mat® line of sound control products,” said Erik Holmgreen, the vice president of research and development at Maxxon, in a previous contribution for gb&d.

This system provides excellent sound control as well as fire resistance. Maxxon’s Gyp-Crete and Acousti-Mat system is listed in 140 UL fire rated designs and backed by hundreds of published sound tests.

AcoustiCORK’s products are another option when it comes to finding sustainable underlayment material. These cork underlayments provide a thin profile and are ideal for hard surface flooring and vinyl and resilient flooring. These underlayments can consist of agglomerated cork granules or agglomerated cork mixed with other recycled materials, like tire derived rubber, high density polyurethane, or EVA foam granules