It’s a classic acoustician situation—when you’re at a party and people find out you help design sound isolation solutions, they seem to magically drift over to the conversation to chime in:
“My neighbor has a parrot that you can hear through the whole building.”
“At my place, some guy who lives upstairs lets his kids play until 10pm. I can’t get any sleep!”
“The Green Line screeches to a halt right in front of my apartment.”
No matter the issue, virtually every scenario follows with the question:
“What would you do to help?”
It’s a question acousticians hear from people especially in the city. Unfortunately, the answer is complicated—there is only so much one can do to fix the acoustical qualities of a residence that’s already been built, especially a space in a multi-unit facility. Over the series of two posts, I want to discuss the factors that go into the acoustics of residential spaces. Because the options of retrofitting solutions for sound isolation, mechanical system noise, and reverberation control tend to be both limited and costly, it’s important to “know thy site.”
When exploring a new place, walk-throughs are short and exciting and rely on using your eyes to get an immediate sense of the surroundings. But, it’s your ears that will be affected from the intrusive noises beyond the walls that you are now noticing after you move in and are getting acquainted with the space. Love the original hardwood flooring and built-ins? We get that, but don’t forget about the busy road nearby. Here are some things to consider before you sign:
- Know your comfort level. Some people are less sensitive to noise than others. What one person might consider a minor “buzz” or “the charm of urban living” would drive another to move out. For example, living in a dense area like Cambridge or Boston is great for its vibrancy and access, but it also means there are many more sources of noise than you’d encounter in a suburban or rural setting.
- Common noise sources — All of the below are necessary for vibrant communities but should ideally be carefully planned with acoustic experts. Make sure you consider the following:
> Transportation noise — Nearby busy roads/public transit lines/flight paths are necessary, but can provide intermittent levels of noise that become more noticeable during quiet hours.
> Mixed use – Consider the actual location of the unit compared to the amenities offered in the facility. Are you located above a noisy public area such as a nightclub, restaurant, or fitness space?
> Multi-family housing — This is the reality for many of us, and I’m sure many of us have dealt with hearing neighbors through the walls or above/below you (or, perhaps, even been the noisy neighbor!). It can be hard to love your neighbors if they are on a completely opposite schedule from you. Besides the human factor, other noise sources include entry doors, garbage chutes, elevators, garage doors, mechanical rooms, etc.
- There are some noise protections in place; check for local ordinances. Boston has a noise ordinance in place that sets limits at a property line from permanent sources; many other towns and cities throughout the country do as well. Building codes set criteria for how much sound “bleed” can occur through shared walls and floors/ceilings in multi-family housing (more on this later). Keep in mind that these protections do not guarantee that your neighbors will be inaudible, however.
- What to look for:
> I’ve lived in a lot of apartments, so I’ve built a “toolkit” of things to consider for the noises I do not like. When I was looking for an apartment, I knew I did not like footfall noise so I chose to look at places on the top floor. I also made sure to get a sense of the floor plan to know where the shared walls are. In my apartment, only the kitchen has a shared wall. Many common apartment designs group noisy areas like kitchens and bathrooms next to either other noisy spaces or a corridor wall to create a “buffer” for quieter spaces like bedrooms.
> Openings, such as windows and doors, are common “leaks”. Check to see if a door has a visible gap underneath or if it is tight to the frame. Check to see if there are storm windows – not great for natural ventilation, but they could be a huge help if the place is next to a train stop!
> It’s hard to anticipate everything and every place is different. Anecdote: I once lived in an apartment where I found out the hard way that the trash cans were picked up at 5-6AM right outside my bedroom window. No place is perfect! It’s all about what you can live with.
- Cliché, but, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Anticipating noise “deal breakers” ahead of time can save a lot of frustration. Depending on the problem, some issues need significant construction to fix.
As I mentioned before, the answer to getting “better” acoustics in a residential building is no simple answer. Choosing the right home has a lot to do with being honest about your needs and planning ahead. When considering multi-family housing, this can become a lot more confusing. Stay tuned for my next blog post to learn just what can be done for apartment living!