The Sound and the Fury Better Living Through Noiseproofing

New York City is famous the world over for being "The City That Never Sleeps", but perhaps, as one sardonic resident put it, "They should call it ‘The City That Never Lets You Sleep’!" Thanks to honking cabs, shrieking trains, hypersensitive car alarms, and the tromping of several million pairs of feet on several thousand miles of concrete sidewalk, the din of the City often takes on a malevolent, almost-sentient character.

"Unwanted sounds become insidious," says Michael Newman from the New Jersey offices of Dunn McNeil Ramsay (DMR), a Manhattan-based engineering consulting firm. "They develop their own life and become maddening."

Audiologists and other experts on the detrimental effects of non-stop noise would agree; they’ve been saying for years that the kind of high-intensity, never-ending cacophony that characterizes big cities like New York is not only irritating, but can have very real, abiding effects on a person’s hearing and overall health. Studies have shown that exposure to annoyingly loud or persistent noise for extended periods of time raises your stress level–and thereby your blood pressure–increasing your susceptibility to heart and vascular problems, as well as lowering your resistance to the everyday pathogens that cause colds and flu. According to the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse (NPC) in Montpellier, Vermont, "Noise…negatively affects human health and well-being. Problems related to noise include hearing loss, stress, high blood pressure, sleep loss, distraction and lost productivity, and a general reduction in the quality of life and opportunities for tranquility."

In deference to residents’ need for quiet, most (if not all) co-op and condo buildings have noise control measures written into their house rules, ranging from requirements specifying that at least 80 percent of a given apartment be carpeted to reduce noise to forbidding loud music after a certain hour. The idea behind these rules is not to treat shareholders and owners like unruly college dorm-dwellers, but to maintain a level of peaceful decorum in and around residents’ homes.

Taking decorum to a new level in recent years, Mayor Giuliani’s quality-of-life campaign has raised fines for noise ordinance violations and encouraged New Yorkers to report offenders, but even strict anti-noise policies and sky-high penalties for ignoring them doesn’t always keep street noise on the street. It follows us into our homes through doors and windows, and is sometimes exacerbated by our own neighbors. So what to do if your dream loft-condo is conveniently located right next to a working garment factory? What if you’re on the top floor, right underneath the A/C machinery on the roof–or on the ground floor, directly above the furnace and generator? Though noise may be inescapable out-of-doors, there are many ways to muffle the inner din and make your home the oasis of tranquility it was meant to be.

Don’t Abdicate–Insulate!

Assuming lack of a private concrete bunker or a silent group of meditating monks for neighbors, your first line of defense against undue noise in your apartment lies within the apartment’s walls, floor, and ceiling. Vertical, multi-family housing presents obvious problems when it comes to noise reduction, and many companies have their research departments working overtime to develop new and innovative building materials to combat the racket. Owens-Corning–the insulation specialists of Pink Panther fame–have devoted an entire division of their company to acoustic engineering and soundproofing materials. The company’s QuietZone soundproofing system incorporates a half-dozen innovative methods and products ranging from do-it-yourself kits to full-scale construction components for professional contractors. NoiseBusters, an online clearinghouse devoted to distributing noise-cutting tips and products to both commercial and residential consumers, notes that though industrial-grade vibration dampers and accoustic batting might be the most effective soundproofing materials available, the price of such products is often prohibited to the average homeowner. NoiseBusters recommends that noise-afflicted homeowners "first consider using commercially-available building products which will produce similar results at a greatly reduced cost."

To that end, other companies have stepped up to the plate, developing laminated wall materials with strategically spaced air pockets designed to trap sound waves and filter noise between adjacent apartments, composite foam mats to be laid in the joists between floors to dampen any sound coming from above or below, and even fiberglass soundproofing boards to squelch noise traveling through heating/cooling ducts. Combining products like these with others–like soundproof ceiling tiles and door insulators–can make your living space as quiet as a professional recording studio, with the interior acoustics of a concert hall.

Speaking of concerts–consider the acoustic guitar, or the cello. These instruments rely on their hollow bodies to amplify and transmit the vibrations of their strings. This concept also applies to living spaces. Since hollowness equals sound transmission, one of the easiest ways to deaden the sound traveling from one apartment to the next is to fill the gaps between floor joists and wall studs with sound-dampening insulation or "batting." Though the cottony fiberglass insulation installed to regulate building temperature has the useful side-benefit of also muffling sound, insulating products are available that have been specifically designed to stop sound waves in their tracks. One such product, originally produced in Korea by the Jung-Ang Industrial Company is NODO-MAT™, a rubber-and-charcoal material formed into sheets of varying thickness and inserted underneath floorboards, behind walls, and overhead in ceilings. NODO-MAT™ works by absorbing then diffusing sound, as well as by isolating sound at its point of origin, thereby deadening it and preventing its transmission.

Other products produce the same effect via different means. Barriboard™ is a paneling material composed of two layers of quarter-inch plasterboard separated by a thin layer of sound-absorbing/dampening medium. Barriboard can be used over wood, plaster, or concrete in initial construction, or used to retrofit occupied living spaces for better noise reduction. It’s particularly useful for soundproofing apartments sharing a common wall, or in multi-family dwellings where space is at a premium and noise is often a serious issue.

Noiseproofing contractors can install insulating materials to remediate sound without compromising more than a few inches of valuable square footage. Indeed, most insulating mats and boards are less than an inch thick, making the space lost to soundproof retrofitting negligible in light of the benefits.

It’s Easy if You Know How

Though open windows and doors are perhaps the routes by which most noise works its way into your apartment, there are ways to minimize the transmission of unwanted sound through your doors and windows when they’re closed. Double- or triple-glazed windowpanes are one way to foil persistent noise from the street and surrounding buildings, as are airtight seals around the panes themselves. Gaps between window jambs and casements can contribute to noise transmission, but are easily corrected with the judicious application of a good acoustic caulk.

If you’re not up to doing your own re-caulking, Jeff Heidings of Manhattan’s Siren Management Corporation warns against using "just anyone" for the job. "In the case of window re-caulking … ask for the contractor’s credentials and an insurance certificate indemnifying the co-op."

Other modifications are simpler. For example, hollow-core doors create the same easy transmission medium as hollow walls and floors, so solid wooden or metal doors–aside from being more attractive and long-wearing than their hollow counterparts–are the superior choice for noise-reduction. According to the NoiseBusters site, "Most residential doors are hollow-core construction (two layers of ?-inch veneer plywood with a honeycomb core) …[and] are almost transparent to sound, since they are rigid and have no weight or mass."

Short of replacing the door itself, re-caulking the door casings and frame and investing in new doorstop strips between the floor and bottom edge of the door can cut down on noise seepage–and may be much less involved than re-caulking all your windows. NoiseBusters "recommend you seriously consider using a good-quality weatherstripping around the door to seal in the sound."

Most minor modifications to your apartment doors and windows can be carried out without consulting your board of directors–it’s just a matter of being reasonably handy and knowing your way around a hardware store. More involved projects, however, may require the express permission from your board, if not their direct involvement.

The Peace Process

Of course, investing in new products or installing noise-blocking materials into an inhabited residential building raises issues of cost, time, and further disruption of the peace. As in any other building-improvement effort, the research a board does for a proposed project before starting the actual work makes all the difference between a painless transition and a major fiasco.

According to Heidings, the top three issues a board must take into consideration for any project apply equally to soundproofing efforts. "Assuming that a board feels the work needs to be done, they should ask the following: First, can we afford it, and how will we finance it? Second, how can we lessen or mitigate any inconvenience to occupants that the project may cause? And lastly, will the contractor start on time, work efficiently, and finish on time?"

To make the whole process easier, acoustic engineering and acoustic consulting companies offer their services to boards and managing agents before the first roll of acoustic batting is laid, measuring the levels of unwanted sound in a building or apartment and either providing a professional assessment of the noise for evidentiary purposes or recommending a course of remediation for the building to consider.

"We stay at arm’s-length," says Newman of his company’s approach to noise analysis. "As consultants, we’re not directly involved [with legal proceedings], except as outside, third-party examiners."

A consultant’s or consulting engineer’s involvement with a given building most often begins and ends with a thorough inspection of the property with sophisticated solid-state electronic measuring equipment designed to filter out ambient sounds–circulating air, distant televisions or radios, and other environmental sounds not classified as "noise"–to identify the source and severity of the problem sounds. The inspector, usually accompanied by the building manager, the super, and the shareholder (if the noise problem is affecting an individual unit), takes sound and vibration readings through the unit’s walls, floors, and ceilings, as well as from the center of rooms and near windows. The inspector will also take detailed photographs and perhaps make a sketch of the building or unit, all of which are dated and may be admissible as evidence in the event of noise-related litigation.

In the case of DMR, the data collected at the building is taken back to acoustic labs and downloaded into a computer program that enables the company’s associates to analyze the results. A computer model is generated to ascertain the source and strength of the noise, from which the company will develop a plan of remediation.

For clients with serious noise problems and in need of more direction, consulting engineers can go beyond merely measuring and analyzing a building’s noise issue into recommending materials and possibly other contractors who specialize in the nuts-and-bolts process of altering the building itself.

Finally, after noise levels have been determined and analyzed and workmen are swarming over the building, laying down insulation and re-sealing windows, a board may want to engage an engineer to oversee and certify the work being done, and to give the owner or board the OK to process payment to the contractor for the work, once it’s completed.

Of course, none of this comes cheap. The price for hiring an engineering consulting firm varies from project to project, of course, but generally, such services range into the thousands of dollars–which says nothing of the cost of the noiseproofing materials and labor to install them. Whether or not the expense is warranted depends on the severity of a building’s noise problem; if three-quarters of shareholders can’t get a good night’s sleep, they may be more than happy to pony up a few more dollars in maintenance fees each month to secure their peace and quiet.

In the end, life is loud, and as more and more people begin to recognize and acknowledge the detrimental effects of living under a constant sonic barrage, more and more will no doubt be done to mitigate those effects. New buildings these days are being constructed from the ground up with soundproof molded concrete blocks and insulated with top-of-the-line acoustic batting in deference to residents’ need for quiet, and many older buildings are taking steps to improve the quality of life within by muffling the noise without–at least until New York City decides to hush up and get some much-needed sleep.

Ms. Fons is Associate Editor of The Cooperator.

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  • Dear Ms. Fons, This is an excellent article, informative in every way. I have not been successful in resolving the noise issue with the upstairs neighbor for almost a year (!) We are talking about the impact noise from heavy stomping on uninsulated wooden floor in a loft building. Having any soundproofing done from above seems to be out of the question for the time being. ( lack of support and intervention from the co-op board etc.) We are looking for experienced contractors that can help us soundproof our bedrooms. Do you have any advice or recommandations on how to approach this kind of project? The materials mentioned in your article sound like something we might want to look into, do you know any contractors in the NYC area that have worked with them that we can talk to or maybe work with? Thanks in advance.
  • Do any know who to talk to about insulation our studio in downtown Denver? We heard noise all around us and we just sign a 12 month lease we don't want to break just yet before trying to do something else. Any information about contractors in the downtown are for insulation rooms would be GREATLY appreciate it.
  • I need good contractor nyc replacing window and keeping street noise out from my room? I have big double glazed windows and it is not doing a good job of keeping street noise out. I can't sleep Help