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Residential Noise; Bringing Sounds to Life and Protecting Life from Noise

By Scott R. Riedel

There are a great many considerations that come into the mix as your clients select a dwelling place. The host of issues include visual architectural style, size of the living space, storage, technical and mechanical updates, location, and price. These are only a few on a nearly endless wish-list that a buyer or renter might contemplate. One of the "invisible" considerations that can become all too problematic and real is that of noise. The residential "sound-scape" can range from peaceful and idyllic to raucous and invasive. Potential sources of noise and the means of controlling noise are many and diverse.

Noise sources can be subdivided into two primary categories. External noises are those originating in the environment outside of the residence, and can include transportation sources (traffic, railroads, airplanes), mechanical sources (air conditioning or other equipment at neighboring residences or businesses), human sources (recreational activities, children playing), or even the weather (thunder, wind, or rain impacting a roof). Internal noises are those that originate within the residential structure. These can include sound from the operation of various mechanical devices (air conditioners, furnaces, water pumps, fans, etc.). Internal noise sources also include human activities such as operating televisions, radios, and music systems, doors closing, or conversations heard within or between dwelling units. Internal noise transmission has the potential to be particularly problematic in multi-family buildings. The fact is that noise, defined as "unwanted or unpleasant sound", can approach from almost any direction at almost any time.

If lack of interruption, disruption, or aggravation from noise is desired in a residence, then proactive steps should be taken to prevent or suppress noise. The most proactive plan is that noise mitigation be a key element in site selection and initial design when a home, apartment, or condominium residence is being planned. One cannot select a site near to highways, railroads, or airports and expect a fully quiet environment! One also cannot build a structure without essential sound absorbing or attenuating architectural features and expect a quiet environment.

The first step in protection from external noise is therefore a careful assessment of the activities and elements neighboring a potential residential location. You and your clients can look for obvious noise sources as mentioned previously (transportation, mechanical or activity sources). If these noise sources sound or appear excessive, a different location may be a better choice. Some noise sources may not be obvious, or may happen at infrequent time intervals (for example, a nearby loading dock may have trucks arriving only once per day). Interviewing current residents and neighbors, or having extended time noise testing conducted may be worthwhile protective measures.

Another step in protection from external noise is careful architectural design. Look for such design features and techniques such as thoughtful window locations away from noise sources, garden barrier walls, land berms, noise attenuating windows and doors, and appropriate insulation and barrier materials. These features can all help to reduce the transmission of unwanted sound into a dwelling.

Internal noise suppression requires protective and proactive design as well. One of the most difficult types of internal noise to control is structure borne sound. This is noise typically generated by mechanical equipment (air conditioners, fans, pumps, and the like), or generated from other "impact" on the building (foot fall noise on a hard floor) that is transmitted through the structure of a house or building. Sound and vibration can easily travel though wood, concrete or metal structures if a sound or vibration source is connected directly to the structural frame of the building. The only effective means of diminishing structure borne sound is to "disconnect" the noise source from the structure. This means that mechanical equipment must be "resiliently mounted" by using such devices as rubber or felt mounting pads, or spring-loaded suspending mounting devices. Hard floors can be "floated" on mounting pads, and/or installed with insulation and separate sub-floor material layers.

Other internal noises are typically air borne sounds. These are sounds of sufficient loudness or intensity that they can be heard through windows, walls, floors, ceilings, and doors, or even through heating/air conditioning ducts. There are a variety of methods available to diminish these airborne noises. Techniques and materials include special wall constructions (staggered studs, added insulation, barrier materials, or resiliently mounted finish walls) to prevent noise transmission, as well as solid core doors with gaskets, insulated or laminated glass, and sound insulated and lined ducts with multiple 90 degree turns. A professional acoustical examination or on site testing and evaluation of external and internal noise conditions may be a worthwhile service for residential clients to consider.

A peaceful and idyllic aural environment is surely possible. The wise residential purchaser will be attentive to the invisible "sound" environment, as well as to the visible physical, structural, and mechanical means of controlling sound.

Mr. Riedel is President of Scott R. Riedel & Associates Ltd., an Acoustical Testing and Design firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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