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.
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.
The Noise Stops Here...
A little prevention is worth a pound of cure, so if you have the time, budget and opportunity to silence noise before it starts, there are a number of measures you can take. According to Plichta, “The first thing architects can do when they're designing a building is to think about how sound transmits, both vertically and horizontally, when they're choosing specific systems for flooring and walls. Both the Gypsum Association and Underwriter Laboratories (UL) provide reference books for architects that establish both the fire rating and the sound rating for walls, floors, and other systems.” These systems will vary based on the size of the multifamily building. “Typically, in a low-to-mid-rise building, you're dealing with wood frame construction. In a high-rise, you're getting into a steel frame construction, so rather than having one system across the board, you've got to incorporate elements that aid in reducing sound transmission in the type of concrete system that's being used, based on the type of flooring that's being installed above, and the type of padding that's being used below.”
In existing buildings, Plichta notes that each situation is unique. “You have to look at each individual situation to try to determine if the noise is airborne or structure-borne, and then take the right steps to reduce it. It could be something as simple as looking at the upper floor system, or removing the ceiling to install sound batt insulation,” explains Plichta. “But, again, you can never completely eliminate noise.”
According to Owens Corning, sound attenuation batt insulation are lightweight, flexible fiberglass insulation-based panels in various sizes designed to deliver noise control.
Unfortunately, chances are good that if you are reading this, you aren’t preparing to design and construct a soundproof residence from scratch. In that case, solutions that are more affordable are likely behavioral and managerial, rather than structural.
Rules and Regs
For example, “Most associations have a provision in their declaration that references and prohibits nuisance activities in their community,” says Michael Ungerbuehler, an attorney with The Association Law Firm, serving multifamily communities throughout Florida, “and that provision allows them to set forth rules and regulations that would go into detail about what might constitute a nuisance activity.”
Plichta agrees, recommending that associations “include something in their bylaws that requires residents to be cognizant of their neighbors, or requires them to keep their stereos at a reasonable level, controlling what residents are allowed to do within certain parameters.”
These regulations can be communicated at board meetings, in building newsletters and correspondence and casually amongst residents. There is no substitute for education, Andres says. “It’s surprising how little is known about how noise is transmitted and annoyance factors. Many times, people are making objectionable noise without even realizing it.”
“There's always a solution to a problem,” explains Plichta. “It's just a matter of finding the solution that is most economical for the association. I think the creation of bylaws with thoughtful acoustic requirements and/or acoustic review of renovations at least puts people on the path of conscientiousness. Maybe you want to include parameters for hardwood flooring in your bylaws, designating certain flooring systems that have been approved by the association. That way, you don't have a resident pulling up carpeting to install a laminate floor in direct contact, which suddenly leads to a tremendous amount of noise complaints.”
Noise is an issue that can be sensitive to both the resident making the complaint and the resident making the noise. “Typically the person making the noise doesn't have that perception of the disturbance,” says Plichta. It could be that an elderly person who's hard of hearing turns their TV up very loud, not realizing how that the volume impacts their surrounding neighbors.”
Further complicating the issue, even minor adjustments to a unit, like mounting a TV on a wall by piercing the drywall envelope, or creating holes in the walls to hang pictures, can create an avenue to transmit sound. According to Plichta, “These seemingly minor actions can increase the sound transmission between adjacent units by a power of four.”
Your association might be able to install some of these tricks and agree on designated quiet times, but should also be have a solid administrative infrastructure to handle inevitable rule breaking, complaints and penalty enforcement. What makes this challenging goes back to the subjective nature of noise.
“The best provisions I see,” says Ungerbuehler, “are the ones that say, 'Nuisance activity is prohibited. The determination of whether or not an activity is a nuisance shall be made by the board's sole discretion,' and in that way, you're not handcuffing yourself to something specific. There may be music that's playing in the evening that's inside the parameters of an ordinance, yet because of circumstances is still a nuisance to others.”
Ungerbuehler also recommends including references to applicable county codes in the provision. “Broward County goes into detail about the different types of activity that can create sound and they provide detailed exemption periods,” he explains, “which means that instead of the association going after the person causing the nuisance with their own documents, they could contact code enforcement to issue the complaint without any expense to the association.”
Removing the subjective human variable and putting the science of sound on your side can help set the building standards and regulations. “’Reasonable’ limits for noise in multi-unit residential units are set in Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) guidelines,” explains Andres. From there, depending on the class of the residence, allowable levels are reduced during nighttime hours. As Andres explains, the overall limits are usually defined by the day and night average.
Another consideration when drafting the guidelines is the construction of the building in question. Was the building constructed with sound barriers between the vertical floors and adjacent walls? “If the building was an apartment conversion, then those sound barriers are typically going to be a problem,” says Ungerbuehler. “In that case, the association will want to prohibit anything other than carpeted flooring, because if you allow tile or hardwood flooring, sound is going to carry.”
Once the guidelines have been set, noise regulations should be enforced just like any other policy. If residents are fined for not properly disposing of their garbage, they also should consistently be punished for volume infractions.
“Unlike other nuisances,” continues Ungerbuehler, “noise issues are ephemeral and difficult to document so enforcement begins with owners being willing to report the issue to the association. That gets difficult because owners aren't looking to directly attack their neighbors, but they need to understand that it's for everybody's best interest.” Many complaints can be resolved between owners, so the association's focus should be on those owners who clearly do not care about how their behavior is affecting their neighbors.
In those tough cases, the association should utilize every tool they have in their governing documents, as well as Florida statutes. “HOAs, condos, and co-ops all have a statutory right to fine and suspend, even if it's not explicitly stated in their governing documents,” says Ungerbuehler “There are still communities that don't realize that.” He recommends that boards familiarize themselves with the processes for fining and suspending owners, as well as the process for issuing notices of violations, which outline what the owner must do to fix the violation and gives them fourteen days to resolve the issue, during which time the owner can request a hearing on the violation.
“In addition,” he adds, “associations should also, if needed, take the issue to their attorney and have their attorney pursue it by sending a demand letter to the owner.”
An independent expert to serve as a third-party witness to the noise can help strengthen a noise complaint. According to Plichta, “The sound testing isn't extravagant—it's just a matter of going out to the site with your decibel meter, establishing your meter basis, and then letting the meter monitor the noise over a period of time. What's important is going out on several different occasions and making sure the owner who the complaint is against isn't aware of the testing, because if they know you're there, they're going to be on their best behavior.”
If all else fails, an association might want to advise complaining residents to call the cops to file a police report, although this option is most effective in situations where owners directly confronting other owners might be ill-advised—shutting down a large party, for example.
“In my experience, the police come out and just say that this is an association issue and that they're not going to deal with it,” says Ungerbuehler, “but if that happens, the owner should still demand that a police report is generated.” He also notes that the police should only be called in the event of reasonable complaints. “It definitely helps to have police reports because they're easy documentation but if the officers arrive and the complaint was due to a one-off incident like a resident dropping a heavy object on accident and the officer doesn't find the complaint reasonable, then the police report could actually hinder the association's ability to move forward.”
The key, according to Ungerbuehler, is that term, 'reasonable.' “We had one community where an owner kept complaining about hearing constant noise from her neighbors. The manager finally visited the owner’s unit and didn't hear any noise. The complaining resident then led the manager over to one of the walls in her living room and told him to put his ear against the wall. Her issue was that she heard people talking all the time—when she put her ear against the wall. It's not reasonable for somebody to be sticking their ear against the wall. We need to ensure that noise complaints are reasonable.” Focusing on addressing reasonable noise complaints, though, is a win-win, because healthy noise levels in the building can lead to healthier, happier residents.
Ultimately, we all just want to be able to enjoy ourselves in our homes. Whether that means you want some peace and quiet or you want to listen to a 1970s rock legend, when you live in a multifamily building, a little consideration goes a long way.
Rebecca Fons is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The South Florida Cooperator. Staff writer Jennifer Welch contributed to this article.