I both loved and hated my apartment in Allentown, Pa. Surrounded by World War I-era homes and leafy streets, the location was a charming and gracious one in a city that often struggles with the realities of urban economics. My front windows featured leaded glass, an inlaid design outlined my glossy hardwood floors, and I could read on my front or back porches.
So I could forgive the loss of my hubcaps. What I couldn't ignore was the incredible noise from the apartment above mine, which woke me at 6 a.m. daily. Conversations with my landlord and the renter upstairs did no good, and when I moved out, I discouraged friends from leasing my otherwise wonderful apartment simply because of the noise.
I'm not the only one who prefers peace and quiet. According to the 2003 American Housing Survey, more than 42 percent of renters surveyed said they could hear their neighbors; more than 13 percent said they were bothered by both the level and timing of the noise. Obviously I fall in that 13 percent.
With that in mind, I accepted an invitation to Owens Corning's Science and Technology Center in Granville, Ohio. (Full disclosure: Although Owens Corning advertises in magazines published by Hanley Wood, the parent company of Multifamily Executive,
I visited the labs out of my own curiosity.) Its acoustical research center, which is accredited by a government-affiliated science and technology standards program, is one of the top sound labs in the country. We've been hearing a lot of chatter about soundproofing at MFE, given the level of condo conversions, new multifamily construction, and noise concerns. Just last year, a Southern California developer paid $1.3 million to condo owners to settle a lawsuit over poor soundproofing.
The Owens Corning acoustic lab, surrounded by Ohio farmland, researches the science of sound, testing everything (building materials, appliances, airplanes, and more) for sound and noise control. We stood in a specially built room designed to reflect every noise, from a person's voice to the running of a dishwasher. When anyone spoke, the sound echoed everywhere in the 10,000-cubic-foot chamber, bouncing between the walls, floor, ceiling, and steel door.
We soon moved to the other extreme. In this second room, acoustical wedges cover every surface, hushing every sound nearly as soon as it starts. So quiet you could hear your own heart beat, the space soon became oppressive to me. As I looked longingly toward the door, the Owens Corning engineer explained what was happening. Memory is triggered first by smell and then by sound, he told us, which is why this room generally made people feel as though they were in one of three extremely quiet places: a mountaintop, an airplane cabin, or at home with a dreadful cold. When it comes to sound, he said, people dislike total silence just as much as deafening noise, choosing instead a blend of the two.
Finding that balance between silence and sound is the work of building manufacturers such as Owens Corning and others. At the lab, engineers use both computer modeling and hands-on tests to evaluate different soundproofing strategies, from acoustic batting to noise-sensitive framing techniques. Some are easy; others are more costly. But as high-density living gains acceptance, noise control sounds to me like an issue that the industry will have to address.