Noise in the Mountains: Why do we have to shout in our public buildings?

by Jon Kovash on July 13, 2011

For the last 30 years, I have lived in passive-solar homes that I designed and constructed. They are all different, but they’ve all been blessedly quiet, allowing us to create our own aural space with conversation or music or silence. It was when I began producing stories for public radio that I became aware of how noisy most buildings are, including buildings that by definition should be quiet. It’s one of the first things you learn when you try to record people “out in the field.” Microphones can amplify unwanted noise: Heating and cooling blowers sound like a B-52 flying through the room. Fluorescent lights emit an urgent, high whine. All sorts of industrial gray noises lurk in between. I ended up conducting many an interview on the back porch.

Make it stop!A few years back, the Town of Telluride was preparing to build a gazillion-dollar new library. The chosen architects held what is known in the trade as a “charette,” (sha-RETT n.: “A meeting where architects pretend to listen to the public, and then follow the path of least resistance”). A few literary types and I showed up and sat in the old library around a table on which was placed a model of a big, fat domino of a new building. I had come to make trouble. I shined my flashlight on the model to simulate how winter sun would penetrate the interior spaces. For starters, half the building was an underground parking garage that would get no sun at all. And they were going to heat this big box with a standard HVAC (Heating/Ventilation/Air Conditioning) package, which is noisy, and libraries are supposed to be quiet. I even pulled out my little cassette recorder and passed around the headphones so everyone could hear the din of the old library’s heating system. Most of the time we don’t notice the noise because our ears are marvelous biological machines that can tune it out, but on a physical level, we are still stressed and strained.

Too LOUD!I could see the architects were unmoved. They already had their bid from the HVAC guy. They were stressing that their design had a “feature” (n.: “a (relatively) interesting little shape stuck on top of the big honkin’ domino”). It was a vertical tower, shaped kinda like a mineshaft, that had no function but  “to pay homage to Telluride’s heritage.” And that’s the way it got built, with a Victorian brick façade that failed to disguise the domino.

In these pages, I have previously scolded architects for their overeager acquiescence to convention and failure to educate the public. In their defense, the ’70s are long gone and they have to make a living dealing with a fickle public. Design it fast. Build it fast. Build it cheaply, and maintain every cubic inch of interior space at an even 71 degrees. To accomplish the latter, use tried-and-true 1940s technology that gulps fuel, rattles, creaks, groans, hums and whines. Provide seizure-inducing industrial light fixtures in rooms that could have been day-lighted by the sun. Blow room air through mold-friendly ducts and crawl spaces. Finish interiors with an indiscriminate array of toxic fibers and goo. In general, give as little thought as possible to the physiology or psychology of the room’s human occupants.

You’re supposed to be quiet in a library, but in churches, schools, theaters, courtrooms and halls of government, you’re supposed to talk, and the building is supposed to be quiet. Noisy examples abound across the Rockies, even in landmark-grade buildings in affluent resort towns. My tape recorder will attest that the worst acoustics in the mountains can reliably be found in city council and county commissioner “chambers.” If I had the archives and Jon Stewart’s editors, I could get a great montage of some of the thousands of times as a reporter I heard the phrases “we can’t hear,” or “we can’t hear in the back.”

Masonic Lodges and other such local gab halls generally also lack the charming acoustics of the Sundowner Room at the Holiday Inn. And many a downtown mountain bar or restaurant has the curse of being located in an old Victorian Boxcar space (long and narrow) with hardwood floors and big windows (any sound roadie will attest that boxcar gigs are the worst).

ZOOOOOOOOM!In the 21st century, small towns in the mountains, resort or not, often have downtown bottlenecks where snow plows, snow making, garbage trucks, recycling trucks, buses, Harleys, cops, ambulances, train crossings, honking drivers and barking dogs all converge, producing, it seems a safe bet, historically high decibel counts coming from the streets.

It’s harder to get away from the noise in our homes too, especially smaller homes with open floor plans, and there are unanticipated scenarios — Mary’s playing the piano in the living room, Bob’s watching NFL in the kitchen, Dutch is singing in the shower and lord knows what Alice and Pierre are doing in the bedroom. The mechanical cacophony adds new sonic layers: furnace whoomping (or swamp cooler huffing), fridge droning, dishwasher whooshing, doors slamming, toilets flushing, drains draining, washers and dryers buzzing, telephones and doorbells ringing and sometimes the shrieking of smoke and burglar alarms.

No wonder we’re reduced to noise-canceling headphones competing with LOUD home-theater systems. Indoors or out, sonic privacy gets harder to achieve, and many of us resort to individual electronic immersion. So just a little nudge, next time you create or reform a space for humans, think about noise.

NOTE TO READERS: A basic premise of this blog is that MG readers spend a lot of time being their own architects. Whether it’s converting your old Volvo for camping, designing a chicken tractor, building a greenhouse, a tree house or your dream house, we are all creating an authentic regional vernacular. The intent is to share personal experiences, trials, tribulations and critical opinions, always looking for ways that everyday life can be better for everyday people.

I hope this blog includes the encouragement of excellence in design of public space. Readers: What are examples in MG country that you like? I admit to liking the new Salt Lake City Library, Yellowstone Lodge, the Taos and Santa Fe plazas, both the old and new Denver Art Museums, Crested Butte’s “Butler Building” theater in the park and KPRK’s art deco radio station in Livingston, Montana.

Hope to soon have a Gmail address for sharing JPGs.


To live large in the Rockies, we must embrace a new vernacular architecture that supports our lifestyles and doesn't hog energy. This illustrated blog will call out the good, the bad & the ugly things being built in MG country, from the perspective of a self-taught designer, wannabe urban planner, passive solar advocate and master builder.

Jon Kovash is a veteran public radio news producer and regional journalist, who grew up in Wyoming and spent 40 years on the Colorado Western Slope. He now lives in Moab, where he operates a sound studio and plays sax & harps with Phil Dirt, Moab’s largest garage band.

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jon kovash December 16, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Imagine my dismay when I discovered that the “Yellowstone Lodge” is actually this cheesy-looking motel in West Yellowstone! Forgive the memory lapse: it was the Old Faithful Inn that first blew me away when I was about 12. Built in the “National Park Service Rustic” style in 1904, it’s the largest log hotel (possibly the largest structure period) in the world, having survived both the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake and the 1988 North Fork Fire. If you haven’t seen it lately, there has been extensive restoration.

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