Noise Rules Keep it Down—But Keep it Fair

When you live in a multifamily building, however, peace and quiet can be hard to come by. From the guy upstairs who gargles loudly at precisely 6:47 a.m. every morning to the neighbor with the yapping Chihuahua—at some point the soundtrack of your neighbors’ lives will inevitably intrude upon your own.

So what’s to be done about noise when your walls are paper thin and dozens of people may call a single building a home? Tackling noise concerns and complaints can be less intimidating if you hit it from both sides: preventing potential problems through construction and soundproofing techniques and implementing policies and community rules to control noise and encourage courteous behavior among residents.

Quantifying Quiet

According to Robert Plichta, AIA, NCARB, CPP, a senior consultant and forensic architect at ESI, a national engineering and scientific investigation firm with offices in Florida, “Noise issues in multifamily buildings are more common than not. Unfortunately, I think a lot of boards just think, 'That's the way it goes,' but I've definitely worked on a number of projects where I've been called in to assess what's going on in relation to noise complaints and to help rectify the conditions that are causing them. Then it's a matter of determining who is responsible for the repairs—the association, the homeowner above, or the homeowner below.”

Robert N. Andres, a technical adviser for the non-profit group Noise Free America agrees, citing from his experience that “about 20 to 30 percent of complaints in close communities are noise or vibration-related.” Combine poorly constructed walls between condo units and your neighbor dancing to Beyonce while wearing high heels, and you’ve got yourself a chronic noise complaint.

The definition of 'noise' can be pretty subjective. One person's maddening racket is another's pleasant dinner soundtrack. In order to make noise levels a little more tolerable and less open to debate, Plichta provides a scientific background to explain how sound is considered. “There are actually two mechanisms that help guide architects and engineers in designing a proper building system to help minimize the amount of noise—the first, Sound Transmission Classification, refers to airborne noise, like the sound from a TV, or a stereo, or a person talking very loud in the unit above. The second, Impact Insulation Classification, refers to noise from direct impact, such as a person walking across or dropping something on the floor of an upper unit.” The international building code requires a design characteristic of 50 decibels for both airborne noise and structure-borne noise in multifamily structures.

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