The problem of noise

Posted on 27 March 2008 2 comments

Noise from neighbours can be one of the most unpleasant and stressful situations when we’re at home. We expect privacy and quiet from the world outside when we’re in our homes, but noise from neighbours can rob us of these feelings.

Some of the things you might hear from neighbours include: conversations, laughter, the TV and radio, the stereo, footsteps, creaky floorboards, doors slamming shut, the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine, the clanking of plates and dinnerware – the list is endless. Yes, I’ve heard all of these, I even once heard a neighbour snoring! Often, neighbours aren’t deliberately trying to disturb our peace and quiet, they are simply doing normal everyday tasks which unfortunately can be heard all too clearly through walls, ceilings and windows. Other times, neighbours can be unreasonable and show little or no consideration when making noise.

Summer seems to be noisier than winter or autumn. The long days and warm evenings draw people out into their gardens for barbecues and parties. The open windows mean sound enters from all directions.

We all react to noise differently – I know that I am quite sensitive to noise, in part, I think because I have put up with noisy neighbours for years! Everyone’s threshold for tolerating noise varies. Few of us mind the sounds of nature: the rustle of leaves in the wind, the patter of rain, birds chirping, even the whistle of the wind. Living in a soundproofed home where you couldn’t hear these things, even through closed windows, would be a strange experience I think. But would you forgo all those sounds if it meant you also didn’t have to hear noise from your neighbours? The problem is that we can’t filter some external sounds like traffic noise or the noise from neighbours in their gardens while letting other sounds enter our homes unencumbered.

In older properties – Victorian and Edwardian homes for example – we expect poor soundproofing but not in new housing stock. The government’s building regulations specify minimum standards for sound transmission between walls and floors but whether these standards are being met by builders is unclear. Perhaps more to the point, the public’s expectation of soundproofing is well ahead of what the building industry provides in new builds. Poor sound insulation constrains what many of us might like to do. If we knew our neighbours couldn’t hear us we could practice an instrument at any time of the day or turn the volume up a little higher on our TV or stereo.

Here are my expectations for a new build property. In a terraced house, a semi-detached house and a flat, the walls that join neighbouring properties should be completely soundproofed. In flats, the floors and ceilings should also be completely soundproofed.

Inside a house or flat, the walls, floors and ceilings of individual rooms need a degree of sound insulation, but don’t need to be completely soundproof. The considerations are more complex here depending on who occupies the house and the variety of situations that result from this. Some people might like to hear the front door open and close no matter where they are in the house, so they know when someone’s coming or going. In a family household, people probably don’t mind the noise of other family members unless the noise they make becomes disruptive or bothersome. Perhaps then as a general (admittedly vague) rule, we can say that inside a house or flat, sound should float through the property in a quiet, considerate tone but not a completely silent one.

Soundproofing in older properties is more problematic. Sound can be transmitted directly through poorly insulated walls and ceilings but it can also travel along what is known as a flanking path. This is where the structure of the property acts as a conductor for sound, carrying it from one room to another. Adding sound insulation to an existing wall usually means losing a few centimetres or inches of room space along the length of the wall. A less drastic solution is to simply line the wall with tall cupboards and bookshelves (with items in them!). This will dampen the noise coming through the wall, although it won’t eliminate it completely.

Noise from outside our homes is the most complicated problem to tackle, simply because there are many factors outside our control. We might live on a road with busy traffic or near a railway line. There are still things that we can do to soften the impact of living with regular noise. For some people, blocking from view the source of the noise can lessen the impact of the noise on their nerves. Trees and hedges, for example, although unlikely to provide much sound insulation, can be effective screens in both the front and back of a property. In flats and terraced homes, windows should be positioned so as to minimise the leakage of sound to adjoining properties (a problem when windows from neighbouring homes are right next to one another).

protuding balconies in a modern apartment block
Protruding balconies like the one in the picture above are a common feature in many modern apartment blocks. Not only do they lack privacy, but when they are placed so closely together they can become a source of noise disturbance. A normal conversation carried out on a balcony like this will transmit itself very clearly to neighbouring flats. Do architects think of these details when they design these buildings?

Here’s what Christopher Alexander has to say in his book, A Pattern Language, about the need for tranquillity and privacy in the city. The quote below comes not from a pattern about noise, but from a pattern about a garden seat (pattern 176). What Alexander says may sound rather quaint, but to me it resonates quite strongly.

“Wordsworth built his entire politics, as a poet, around the fact that tranquillity in nature was a basic right to which everyone was entitled. He wanted to integrate the need for solitude-in-nature with city living. He imagined people literally stepping off busy streets and renewing themselves in private gardens – every day. And now many of us have come to learn that without such a place, life in the city is impossible. There is so much activity, days are so easily filled with jobs, family, friends, things to do – that time alone is rare. And the more we live without the habit of stillness, the more we tie ourselves to this active life, the stranger and more disquieting the experience of stillness becomes…”

Realistically, we can never expect the tranquillity and peace of countryside living in the city, even in city suburbs. Many of us live in flats without private outdoor space and if we do have gardens, they are likely to be overlooked by neighbours. So what should we expect? Well, we should expect a lot more thought to the problem of noise from the major housebuilders. They should think through all the scenarios and situations where noise can make an unwelcome intrusion in our homes and resolve to address these in the design of a property.

Ultimately, when we live in such close proximity to one another, as we do in many cities, we have to be considerate and mindful of how our behaviour will affect or disturb others. This is true whether we know our neighbours or not. Without such consideration, day-to-day life becomes stressful and miserable.

2 comments

Stephen Rose

28 March 2008 16:58 GMT

I live in NYC — mid-Manhattan in a 100 year old building that was once a hotel. It is flawless once you are in the apt. No sound intrudes. Through the windows on floor 8 I hear street traffic 24/7 but it does not have the intrusive qualities of the sorts of sounds you flag as bothersome. Then too there are the noisy gulls of Bristol (where my daughter lives) — they can penetrate everything. Glad to see Alexander referenced. Most contemporary building is forgettable IMO. Cheers, S

A. Hussein blog author

28 March 2008 20:43 GMT

I wonder if the distance from the street (on the eighth floor) makes the sound of the traffic feel less intrusive even though it’s still audible? Agree about the gulls – their constant noise would probably become annoying pretty quickly!

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