Condo soundproofing has greatly improved over the last 20 years. Despite that, noise is still the second most important cause of discord between owners. Survival guide . . .
Jocelyne Miller, a retired teacher, lives in her first condo for five years now. Since she used to live in a single-family house in the countryside, she had some concerns about life in a condo, but she took the time to ask many questions before purchasing a new condo. According to her, soundproofing was a key element in her final decision.
Despite a few downsides, Jocelyne Miller considers that her new home is adequately soundproofed. “Life in a condo is not suited for everyone. Everything depends on the expectations of each and every one, but I love it! I sometime hear my upstairs neighbours walking, but nothing more. Some of my neighbours told me that they hear me play the piano . . . But they like it!”
The experience is much harder for Philippe-André Brière, a freelancer in the publishing industry, who has purchased a condo in a new triplex. “I was told that the soundproofing was excellent, but the flaws have not been revealed during the inspection, he says. I hear all the discussions of my upstairs neighbour, and I jump every time she opens or closes her cupboard. It is not that she is noisy, but our life schedules are opposed and all the sounds go through the ceiling,” says Mr. Brière.
This new owner is not the only one in this situation. “A noise problem affects daily life, and the value of a house. It is the second most common reason for sending a formal notice. It can even be considered a hidden defect,” affirms Robert Ducharme, acoustician at Accoustilab.
The quest for a better acoustic performance has started in the 80’s, and regulations nowadays are much more severe. For example, the building code has increased the STC – Sound Transmission Class to a minimum of 55 for condos (for more details, please read “5 keys to understand soundproofing”.)
According to Bruno Natel, architect and technical writer at the Association des professionnels de la construction et de l’habitation du Québec (APCHQ), it is still all theoretical.”There is a wide range of soundproofing products, but their performance can vary depending of their combinations and the quality of the construction. Flaws are possible. A very simple example: two power outlets back to back will create a hole in the soundproofing,” explains Mr. Nantel.
How to Evaluate the Noise Level in a New Condo
The best strategy to avoid nasty surprises is to question the promoters on the acoustic performance and the quality of soundproofing. “The argument ‘it is rock solid. You will not hear a thing!’ means nothing, warns Robert Ducharme, and high pricing is not a sign a quality either.”
You should instead ask that someone walks in the unit above the one you are visiting. Question the neighbours. Ask to see the insulation blueprints. Also, if you particularly dislike noises, an acoustic test can be performed before the purchase. Since the test costs around $ 1,000 you can negotiate with the promoter and ask that they pay for it.
Gilles Malo, condo manager for almost 20 years, has seen it all over the course of his career. “Ask to see the estimates, identify the sound locks on the blueprints. Also, choose your inspector wisely; make sure he is specializing in soundproofing. “
The problem with the soundproofing is that although it is central to the well-being, it requires costs that do not translate into quantifiable values when investing, affirms Jean-Philippe Migneron, engineer and consultant at Acoustec. “Our expectations for comfort are getting higher and higher, but future owners hesitate to pay between 10% and 15% more for a superior acoustic.”
Soundproofing: What if We Buy from a Blueprint?
Obviously, it is difficult to evaluate work when it has not even started. “We don’t want to buy an ad, we want to buy performance,” summarizes Jean-Philippe Migneron.
“Many promoters boast that they provide a superior soundproofing . . . but on a legal standpoint it means nothing. It only means that it is a few points above the governmental norm. “
According to Robert Ducharme, asking if an acoustician has been implicated in the project will give you a good idea of the importance this criteria has for the promoter. “Ask yourself about the acoustic phenomenon identified by the promoter, the sources of possible noises in the surrounding and ask to see the acoustic estimates. There are none? Well! You have your answer right there.”
Despite these warnings, it is possible to recognize some good soundproofing steps on the blueprints themselves. “The first thing to consider is the walls’ composition,” affirms Bruno Nantel, architect.
A document produced by the Canada Mortage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) says that the walls built to reduce airborne sounds must contain the followings:
1. Two plies or more of materials that, without being connected by solid materials, ensure a degree of air tightness;
2. The heaviest materials possible;
3. The deepest cavity possible, filled with absorbent material;
4. An air tight construction, particularly at the points of penetration.
According to Jean-Philippe Migneron, there is often a discrepancy between the architect blueprint and the construction itself and that is a problem. His advice? “Ask that the acoustic performance be written on the act of sale, it will become a contractual value in case corrections are needed. Ask for an acoustic certificate of compliance. The same way one would ask for a LEED or Novoclimat certification.”
The Sources of the Noises
The sale is done and you hear everything your left neighbour is doing? Before starting renovations (or suing anyone) it is important to determine where those annoying noises are coming from.
There are 4 types of noises in a building:
1. Airborne sounds (music, television, discussion, etc.);
2. Impact sounds (shoes on the floor, a running dog, chairs that are moved, etc.);
3. Solidborne sounds (patio furniture on a balcony, elevator, etc.);
4. Plumbing sounds.
“Adding a partition wall, materials or insulation, sealing the bottom of the doors . . . There is a solution to every problem. The most important thing is to target the right spot,” advises Bruno Nantel.
If the sound transmission rating does not respect the minimum requirements of the National Building Code (NBC) in your new condo, you have recourse.
“The governmental norms are a protection, indicates Gilles Malo, and it is possible to demand that the promoters make the necessary corrections.”
Please note that the National Building Code is only interested so far by the ITS and that only concerns the airborne sounds. “There are recommendations for the other types of noises, from the CMHC for example, but there are no regulation,” deplores Jean-Philippe Migneron.
On top of reducing or stopping the noises coming from the surrounding, a good soundproofing will also block cooking smells and will reduce air flow, affirms Robert Ducharme, before adding that the quality of life is still the number one argument to justify a good soundproofing.
Philippe-André Brière has thought about bringing an action against the owner, but has given up. “He lives abroad, and it all sound very complicated. My neighbour and I are instead planning to finance the soundproofing ourselves. It was not planned in the budget but it is worth it because I am exhausted. The noises affect my work and ruin my quality of life . . .”