Best Practices for Residential Acoustics: Know Thy Site

| March 22, 2019

by Kristen Murphy

It’s a classic acoustician situation — when you’re at a party and people find out you design sound isolation solutions, they seem to magically drift over to the conversation to chime in:

“At my place, some guy who lives upstairs lets his kids play until 10 p.m. I can’t get any sleep!”

“The Green Line screeches to a halt right in front of my apartment.”

No matter the issue, virtually every scenario follows with the question:

“What would you do to help?”

Unfortunately, the answer is complicated — there is only so much you can do to fix the acoustical qualities of a residence that has already been built, especially a space in a multi-unit building. That said, I will gladly share some tips that go into creating good residential acoustics. Since retrofitting solutions for sound isolation, mechanical system noise, and reverberation control tend to be both limited and costly, it’s important to “know thy site.”

When exploring a new place, you rely on using your eyes to get an immediate sense of the surroundings. But, it’s your ears that will be affected from the noises beyond the walls after you move in.

Here are some key things to consider before you sign.

Know your comfort level. What one person might consider a minor buzz or “the charm of urban living” would drive another crazy. Common noise sources:

  • Transportation noise. Nearby busy roads, public transit lines, and flight paths are necessary but can provide intermittent levels of noise that become more noticeable during quiet hours.
  • Mixed use. Consider the location of the unit in conjunction to amenities offered in or near the facility. Are you above a noisy public area such as a nightclub, restaurant, or fitness studio?
  • Multifamily housing. Many of us have dealt with hearing neighbors through the walls or above or below you (or, perhaps, even been the noisy neighbor!). It can be hard to love your neighbors if they are on a completely opposite schedule from you. Besides the human factor, other noise sources include entry doors, garbage chutes, elevators, garage doors, mechanical rooms, etc.

There are some noise protections in place; check for local ordinances. Boston has a noise ordinance that sets limits at a property line from permanent sources; many other towns and cities throughout the country do as well. Building codes set criteria for how much sound “bleed” can occur through shared walls and floors/ceilings in multifamily housing. Remember that these protections do not guarantee that your neighbors will be inaudible, however. What to look for:

  • I’ve lived in a lot of apartments, so I’ve built a toolkit to help weigh the pros and cons of a potential new place. I dislike footfall noise, so I prefer units on the top floor. I also make sure to get a sense of the floor plan to know where the shared walls are. Many apartment designs group noisy areas like kitchens and bathrooms next to either other noisy spaces or a corridor wall to create a buffer for quieter spaces like bedrooms.
  • Openings, such as windows and doors, are common leaks. Check to see if a door has a visible gap underneath or if it is tight to the frame. Check to see if there are storm windows — not great for natural ventilation, but they could be a huge help if the place is next to a train stop!

Clichéd, but, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Anticipating noise deal breakers ahead of time can save a lot of frustration. Depending on the problem, some issues may need significant construction dollars to fix.

So, the answer to getting better acoustics in a residential building is this: It takes time and research. Choosing the right home has a lot to do with being honest about your needs and planning ahead. So, keep these best practices in mind the next time you are out looking for a new place to call home.

Kristen Murphy



Kristen Murphy is senior consultant at Acentech.

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