Noise Rules Keep it Down—But Keep it Fair

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.

Quantifying Quiet

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.
In fact, footfall traffic accounts for the majority of sound-related issues Jeremy Feigen, owner of Accurate Construction in Mundelin, sees from associations.  “Kids running, bouncing balls, even things like alarm clocks and telephones can be heard,” remarks Feigen.  “I’ve had a lot of people who’ve said they can actually feel their neighbor’s cell phones vibrating in their unit.”
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. These systems will vary based on the size of the multifamily building, Plichta says. “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.

Rules and Regs

For example, “Most associations have a provision in their declarations that state that no noxious or offensive activity will be tolerated at the property,” says Kelly Elmore, principal attorney at Kovitz Shifrin Nesbit, a law firm serving multifamily communities in Chicago, “and by noxious or offensive, we mean something that would be unacceptable to a reasonable person, whether it's a noxious or offensive odor coming from the unit, or an unreasonable level of noise.”
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.”

Keeping Quiet

“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.”
Carpeting is the go-to solution for most of the complaints that Feigen sees.  But when carpet just doesn’t cut it, Feigen recommends that the owner remove the dry wall ceiling and get to the root of the problem.  “A lot of times the the sub-flooring isn’t glued down, especially in older buildings, so we’re able to shim and glue the existing sub-structure,” explains Feigen. “We install acoustical insulation into the existing joist cavities, sound isolation clips to stop a majority of the footfall traffic from transferring through to the new drywall ceiling, and then we use two layers of drywall and a product called green glue. This process knocks out 90% to 95% of the sounds.”
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.
“In situations where it's just a single owner complaining, we've often taken the position that the association only has the authority to act on behalf of the association when it affects the common elements of more than one unit,” explains Elmore. “So, in those situations, we really want to see owners trying to resolve the situation amongst themselves or with the manager's help. It's not until a situation starts affecting more than one unit, or if you're standing in the hallway and you can hear a blasting radio that a situation would be considered by a court to be noxious or offensive.”
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.
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 garbage, similar fines for noise volume infractions should be consistent.
 “The first approach should always be to encourage the owners to resolve it themselves, and if they can't do that, then the property manager should get involved, or the board can sit down with each owner in an informal setting to try to work out a solution,” explains Elmore. If all else fails, the board does have the authority to issue a notice of violation and to threaten the assessment of a fine. “Boards are able to assess daily fines for ongoing violations,” says Elmore, “and as an absolute last resort, the board can file an action seeking an injunction against the owner, requesting a court order preventing them from causing further noise disturbances.”

Going to Court

That said, “A prudent board will explore all avenues that could resolve the conflict before resorting to litigation or fines,” cautions Elmore. “In my experience, even situations where you've had a significant problem with the resident who's causing the noise issues, typically the issue gets resolved through owner-to-owner interaction, sometimes with involvement from the property manager or the board. The situations that typically go to litigation are complaints resulting from the construction of the building, or the installation of certain hardwood floors. “But even then,” Elmore says, “the first step should be to ask the owner to put down rugs in the areas where the owners below really identified the noise.”
If just talking to the unit owner isn't effective, explains Elmore, “issuing a notice of violation often prompts them to try to resolve the issue, because the notice actually explains to them why their conduct is wrong, outlines when the conduct is occurring, and says that if the issue isn't resolved, the board has the right to not only assess a fine and legal fees, but also to file an action to compel compliance with the rules.”
Compiling appropriate documentation for the legal proceeding requires diligence, though.  “Both the owner making the complaint and the management should be creating their own record of instances when the noise was observed,” explains Elmore.
“In order to file a complaint with the court, you need to be able to show the court that there was an ongoing issue with noise, including the times of day at which the noise occurred.” An independent expert to serve as a third-party witness to the noise can help strengthen your complaint.

Calling Police

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.  
“If a massive party is causing a disturbance in the building and a lot of residents are complaining, then absolutely that's a situation where you'd have the cops intervene,” says Elmore. “But for less drastic noise complaints, what a lot of people don't realize, is that you can't necessarily use a police report in a formal court hearing—they're typically considered hearsay and the police report can only be offered for proof that the police were called and came to the building on a certain day.”
Calling the police might seem a bit drastic, but if you’ve ever dealt with an upstairs neighbor's rowdy late-night birthday party while trying to keep a sleeping baby asleep, the boys in blue might seem like your only hope.
Beyond that, we all know the importance of a good night’s sleep. Luckily for Chicagoland associations, Elmore is seeing less and less noise complaints come through her practice. “I'm preparing a seminar on disturbances in multifamily buildings, but most of the complaints we're seeing lately deal with other types of issues that fall under that umbrella of noxious and offensive activities,” explains Elmore. “Maybe developers are just making the buildings sturdier these days.” Or perhaps associations have gotten better at resolving noise complaints before they get to litigation. Either way, it's 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 Chicagoland Cooperator. Staff writer Jennifer Welch contributed to this article.

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