Walls are often the only separation between you and your neighbors when you live in a densely populated area like Chicago, and privacy sometimes seems to go out the window. People hear their next-door neighbors talking, footsteps from above, or even music coming through the walls. Sound transmission between units is one of the biggest complaints among condo dwellers. Noise can also come from ceilings, doors and windows, so living in a condo or co-op could take some getting used to.
“Mostly it's from the noise from above the ceiling coming from the unit above them,” says David Snyder, owner of Chicagoland Renovations. “People walking around, floors squeaking, probably about 80% is from the ceiling, and the rest is from wall noises—from neighbors talking and such.”
Many buildings in Chicago are much older than the newer steel-and-concrete high rises, and because of that, the materials used in their construction aren't as effective in cancelling noise transmission. Even with newer buildings, effective soundproofing materials are often not used during construction, so noise leaks from one unit into another.
It's a significant difference when you're talking about decibels and sounds going through an open wood cavity as opposed to having it stop with a huge concrete floor. “Concrete stops more sound than an open air space would,” says Jeremy Feigen, owner of Accurate Construction in Mundelein.
While some noise in shared living spaces is normal, if you can clearly hear your neighbors’ conversations or TV through your walls or ceiling, you have a noise problem. However, if you’re willing to make the financial investment, there are innovative noise reduction solutions that can turn an older condo unit into a sanctuary of peace and quiet. ”Usually the biggest issue that people have is that despite the fact that they're in a condo situation, they want their privacy, and as soon as they can hear what's going on with their neighbors, they know their neighbors can hear them,” says Feigen.
The frequency of sound is expressed in wavelengths or cycles per second (CPS), which is more commonly referred to as hertz (Hz). Low frequency noise is considered 250 Hz and below, while high frequency noise is 2000 Hz and above. Mid-frequency noise falls between 250 and 2000 Hz.
The amplitude or loudness of sound is expressed in decibels. This is a logarithmic compressed scale dealing in powers of 10 where small increments in dB correspond to large changes in acoustic energy.
When a sound wave hits one side of a wall it transforms into a vibration, which will travel from the sheet rock, to the stud and into the sheet rock on the other side of the wall. Because it does not have any other hard surfaces to travel through, it becomes an airborne sound again.
“You can measure it with a sound meter,” says Bob Orther, service advisor at Soundproofing America, a national company that services Chicago. “The way they come up with the [Impact Insulation Class] IIC rating is with a hammer test. They go upstairs and hammer the floor, and look at the decibels down below.”
Holes and improper insulation in a wooden building structure can actually reverberate and amplify certain sounds. “When you have joist spaces that are not insulated, it actually acts like an echo chamber, and sound reverberates throughout the house,” says Feigen.
There's no one industry-wide accepted method of soundproofing, and that's at least in part because none of them completely get rid of every sound from above or next door. But, other than retrofitting your entire ceiling with new insulation and drywall, certain materials can also help dampen sound. “There's a vinyl material that's really great at blocking airborne sound, but impact noise is a hard animal to combat. In a concrete structure, you're not going to have a problem with airborne noises like you would with a wood structure. Wood in general is not really a good sound-proofer, but if it's dense enough it can be,” says Orther.
Wall to Wall Action
Common wall dwellings have to meet certain codes that are set in place by either the local building code or the national building council. A unit of measure called a Sound Transmission Class (STC) will tell you how soundproof a wall or ceiling is. In most urban areas, a unit must have an STC of around 50 to be within code. According to industry experts, an STC of 40 is the onset of privacy. Once it hits 50, very loud sounds such as musical instruments can barely be heard. At 60, most sounds are inaudible.
For soundproofing a residence, it’s important to minimize vibration from one surface to another and some believe the best way to do that is by adding shock absorbers between the ceiling or wall in an existing structure.
“You can float a ceiling, completely isolate your ceiling with clips, screw those up to some kind of wood structure, or directly into the concrete with masonry screws,” says Orther. “Once you put the drywall in there, there will be a quarter inch gap around the perimeter that doesn't touch the adjoining walls. It actually isolates the ceiling from the structure above. It's expensive because you really have to take out your drywall to do it.”
One option is to install acoustical insulation, although that means taking walls down to the studs. Another alternative is using dB-Bloc, a vinyl sound barrier material, which can be layered behind drywall or other finished wall or ceiling surfaces to help block noise transmission through common walls.
Diffusers and reflectors are used to reshape reflective energy where walls and ceilings create acoustical mirrors. Diffusers and reflectors keep volume the same as untreated walls and ceilings while changing the shape of the noise.
One way to reduce noise to people below you is by carpeting the floor. The problem is many people like hardwood floors or decorative ceramic tile, so in these cases you will need to install a sound-absorbing acoustical mat before laying down the floor.
“Whoever is living upstairs decides, 'I don't like my carpet anymore,' installs wood floors, and doesn't put a soundproofing agent underneath it. And they're usually doing it illegally because most condo associations require an STC. But, the main thing they're concerned with is IIC, what's called an impact insulation coefficient,” says Orther.
It’s not just the walls and ceilings you have to worry about when it comes to noise. Noise can sneak in through any gaps in openings, including doors, windows, outlets, switch boxes, HVAC openings, and anywhere building materials meet. “I always tell people, do not put recessed lights in your ceiling, because that's just a big hole in your ceiling. That said, if you have a concrete ceiling, it might not be a problem because you're talking about the impact noise. It will come through the lights,” says Orther.
According to Wyatt, sealers are very cost effective yet often the most overlooked step in noise control solutions. These can include door seals, automatic door bottoms, thresholds, and acoustical caulk. Also good for soundproofing are noise barriers, which are always high density, massive, heavy materials and are essential for eliminating noise transmission.
Of all the things to get upset about when loving close to others, sound issues seem to be among the most incendiary. “What I have found in the years of doing this, is when we get phone calls it's “I hate my neighbors. I can hear their cell phones, their conversations, their televisions, their dogs, their alarm clocks going off—you name it I've heard it from people before,” says Feigen. Lawsuits related to noise complaints are not uncommon, and some associations are taking matters seriously. “If there is a call out in the bylaws, and they don't meet that, then there's a serious problem. But there's things they can put under the floor. For some reason recycled tires works great for stopping impact noises going down,” says Orther.
While some of today's condo developers are taking more proactive steps to incorporate noise control features during the construction process in Chicago, even newer buildings with concrete ceilings face many older developments where noise between units is a big issue. “A lot of the problem is contractors to have a clue about soundproofing. If they did, they would save a lot of money on lawsuits. Because if a condo just gets put up, and residents immediately have issues, they go to the contractors,” says Orther. “I would hope that some of the newer buildings would have soundproofing taken into account, and incorporated into the construction,” says Feigen.
Spending a little to mitigate any sound issues will not only provide you with peace of mind and less noise, but will be an attractive feature if you ever decide to sell. “Research the products. Look for information available from an outside source that say these products work. The majority of other products have hired outside consultants to do their testing for them, which says a lot about the products,” says Feigen.
Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland Cooperator. Editorial Assistant Tom Lisi contributed to this article.