Soundproofing Solutions

Can you afford to lose residents over noise complaints?

Noise complaints are likely the number one grievance in multifamily living. Unfortunately, management has limited options with which to handle it. The idea of retrofitting the building and making it more soundproof is an option, but it can be very pricey and, depending on who you talk to, it may even be out of the question.

Jeff Heidings, president of Siren Management Corp. in New York, says that retrofitting buildings to soundproof them in New York City would never happen. “Nobody is going to retrofit to keep a resident in this area,” he says. “The prewar buildings have thick plaster walls and help with soundproofing, but the standard language is that we must lay down floor covering on 85 percent of the floor in each apartment. That’s all we need to do.”

The only recourse a resident who is bothered by the noise has is to move, observes Heidings.

“Building owners will retrofit a building only when it hits them in the pocketbook,” adds Anne Sadovsky, certified speaking professional, consultant, and former vice president of marketing and education at Lincoln Property Company. “Managers don’t want to lose tenants over a noise complaint, and losing tenants in this economy is not something we can afford to do. When they keep losing tenants because of the same complaint, they will see that they have to fix the problem.”

Herbert Singleton P.E., founder of Cross·Spectrum Labs in Springfield, Mass., which measures sound and vibration, admits that it’s very hard and costly to retrofit a building for soundproofing. “We try to encourage builders to do this as they are building or renovating,” he says.

To prevent noise from transferring from one unit to another, Singleton explains that a building needs a solid structural separation. “That would mean knocking down the wall and rebuilding it or installing new windows, and most owners are reluctant to do that,” says Singleton. “I think it’s worth it because it pays off for years and years.”

The bottom-line cost of losing a resident due to noise can be high, however. There’s the cost of marketing and advertising to find a new resident, as well as the cost of replacing appliances or upgrading the apartment. The costs can add up quickly, and retrofitting once would keep these residents in the building longer, but is there a less costly answer?

The $20 solution

Sadovsky suggests the apartment industry take a lesson from the hotel industry. “If a hotel can keep you from hearing the people above or below you, why can’t the apartment industry keep it from happening, too?” she asks. “You can’t segregate tenants with children or dogs or those who like loud music, or day sleepers and night sleepers, but there has to be some sort of a solution.”

Sadovsky suggests a simple $20 remedy that would result in resident retention and extensive savings on the building’s bottom line.

“Keep a sound machine on hand that plays wind, rain and waterfall and give it to the tenant who is having a problem. It’s an effort that shows you want to save the tenant.” If the sound machine doesn’t work, Sadovsky suggests transferring the resident to another unit if one is available.

Soundproofing products

Singleton suggests treating the noise source first. Start small and add additional insulation or sealants around door jams, electrical boxes and shared vents to help deaden some of the sound.

He notes that many managers confuse room treatment with soundproofing. “If you have a noise problem and put up a heavy curtain or egg crate on the walls, that’s room treatment—not soundproofing,” he says. “It’s not doing anything from stopping sound from going into the next room; it’s simply reducing reflections in the room.”

There is an entire industry of soundproofing products that Singleton says claim to significantly reduce noise, but many have no data to support these claims. “You can get data that tells you how well it works,” he says. “Look for products that have STC ratings or Impact Isolation Class.”

An STC rating is a single-number rating describing a material’s or an assembly’s ability to prevent sound transmission through the assembly or the material. Impact Isolation Class is another way to measure sound that determines how much vibration comes through the wall. “Reputable companies have data,” says Singleton.

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