Sound issues tend to take a back seat to architectural design when a building is on the drawing board. At least that's what you'll hear from acoustical consultants who work with multifamily developers. “When it's time to think about economy and the value of the building, control of sound gets kicked to the side too often,” says Steve Haas, president of SH Acoustics, a Milford, Conn., company that specializes in luxury residential projects. It's easy to do; acoustic design and performance happens behind the scenes, making it easy to discount or ignore compared to other must-have features that you can actually see.

But that's a mistake. Haas and other consultants say that resident complaints over noise are on the rise. “Once people move into their apartments, sound issues quickly rise to the top of the priority list,” he says, creating a customer service and construction nightmare.

Jim Talbot

Such problems have produced the development of a new class of building materials designed to simplify the soundproofing process for apartment and condo developers. The most promising newcomers? Sound-dampened drywall and plywood.

“They have really changed the face of how we design because they give us an almost guaranteed performance,” says Haas. Such guarantees can be make-or-break at a time when noise levels in multifamily buildings are a growing concern.

THE DIN OF LIVING Traffic and airplanes contribute to the din from outside; mechanical equipment and residents' stereo systems make life anything but quiet and peaceful on the inside.

Demographic shifts only amplify the sound problem in multifamily buildings. While most apartment dwellers are used to living in close quarters with their neighbors, many of the new residents moving into multifamily buildings today are baby boomers accustomed to living (quietly) in suburban single-family homes.

All the extras offered by new apartment and condo buildings don't help, either. In order to attract these renters and buyers, new buildings are being outfitted with a growing list of social spaces—gymnasiums, activity centers, even bowling alleys. As fun as these amenities sound, they do come at an acoustic price. “I have heard from people in lower-level apartments who have to deal with the noise of crashing pins and dropping balls,” says Haas.

But building noise isn't confined to the bottom floors. “One inherent conflict in multifamily dwelling design is that much of the noisy, vibrating equipment—fans, cooling towers, elevator equipment—is located at the top of the building, right above the highest-priced apartments,” he says. Last year, Haas's firm got a call from a major condo developer in Miami who discovered this irony firsthand.

The developer, who lived in a penthouse in one of his own buildings, had to endure a constant whining noise caused by the property's elevator. He wasn't the only one. Residents at other properties were also complaining about the elevator noise, and sales had started lagging. So the developer decided to fix the noise problem. Although Haas won't give actual figures, he estimates the cost of the repairs at three to four times what it would have cost to engineer the same noise and vibration control solutions into the building when it was under construction.

Creating the sound of silence required some work. Part of the noise problem stemmed from the limited barriers between the equipment room and the adjacent condos; the only thing separating the living spaces from the equipment room was a concrete block wall. So Haas' crew clad the inside of the room with metal studs, using resilient pads to decouple the studs from floor and ceiling. The studs were then covered with a layer of sound-absorbing drywall.