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The Sounds of Silence

April 20, 2020

phenixnuner

There is a general consensus among the left, right and environmentalist is that increasing the amount multifamily residency (which includes apartments, condominiums, townhouses and duplexes) is what we should be doing in the future. The argument on the left is less restrictive zoning, proper incentives for building new homes and making it difficult to hoard land. The argument on the right is that restrictive zoning law slow the develop of different types of housing and the the amount of housing. Both agreeing that single family homes and intense zoning laws are affecting the supply and affordability of housing option. The environmental case for increasing housing density is it will make public transportation easier to facilitate. The increased residential density will reduce commuting time and distance. These are all excellent reasons to support multifamily residences . However no one is addressing the downside that many multifamily residences have which is poor sound isolation which is essential to proper living conditions.

Residential Noise Disputes

I myself have worked on multiple noise disputes they are complicated and extremely personal. A 2013 survey performed by the company FindLaw found that 42% of Americans where involved in a dispute with their neighbor of the disputes almost 50% where related to noise. The next category was Pets and Animals which was almost 30 percent of the complaints. I can not tell you what percentage of these dispute involved sounds the pets made. In multifamily residences this is further complicated by the fact people live in close proximity.

Noise vs Sound

The first thing to get out of the away is avoiding the term noise. To measure the level of sound produced we must use a sound level meter. No noise level meters exist. What is and is not noise is completely subjective. The only thing that can be done is to reduce the sound level that is transferred between units.

Sound Transmission

Sound can travel in two fashions airborne and structurally. Airborne sound transmission is when you can hear your neighbor talking through the walls. Structural sound transmission is when you can hear your neighbors foot steps in a far away room. Airborne transmission is when the sound travels through the air. Structural transmission is when sound travels through solid objects and then radiates from solid objects into the air. Most sound has a combination of both transmission methods.

Regulatory

How we deal with unwanted sound at a local level is very interesting here is an example from the noise ordinance (§ 74-131. Prohibited conduct paragraphs a-c).in Atlanta,Georgia. I picked Atlanta because, finding its rules would be pretty easy and I am cold.

Atlanta’s restrictions vary during the time or day of the week here is a table explain those shifts.

Sunday-ThursdayFriday-Saturday
7am-11pm300ftn/a
11pm-7am100ftn/a
7am-12pmn/a300ft
12pm-7amn/a100ft
Table Containing distance of audibility for Atlanta zoning laws

Atlanta’s Single Family Zoning Laws

  • Restrictions of 300 feet for 7:00 a.m. through 11:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 7:00 a.m. through 12:00 midnight on Friday and Saturday.
    • Mechanical sound-making devices. It is unlawful for any person or persons to play, use, operate, or permit to be played, used, or operated any radio receiving device, television, stereo, musical instrument, phonograph sound amplifier or other machines or devices for the producing, reproducing or amplifying of sound and/or noise at such a volume and in such a manner so as to create, or cause to be created, any noises or sounds which are plainly audible at a distance of 300 feet or more from the building, structure or vehicle, or in the case of real property, beyond the property limits, in which it is located, whichever is farthest, between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 12:00 midnight on Friday and Saturday.
    • Human-produced sounds. It is unlawful for any person or persons to yell, shout, hoot, whistle, or sing on the public streets or sidewalks or on private property so as to create, or cause to be created, any noises or sounds which are plainly audible at a distance of 300 feet or more from the place, building, structure, or in the case of real property, beyond the property limits, in which the person is located, whichever is farthest, between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 12:00 midnight on Friday and Saturday.
    • Commercial advertising. (this section was omitted)
    • Party noise. It is unlawful for any person or persons in charge of a party or other social event that occurs on any private property to allow that party or social event to produce noise in such a manner that such noise is plainly audible at a distance of 300 feet or more from the building or structure from which the noise is emanating or in the case of real property, beyond the property limits, on which the party or social event is located, whichever is farthest, between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 12 midnight on Friday and Saturday. For the purposes of this subsection, a “person in charge of a party or other social event” shall mean any adult person who resides in or on the premises involved in such party or social event and is present at such party or social event. For the purposes of this subsection, “noise” shall mean the same sounds, or any combination thereof, as described in paragraphs a. or b. above.

Atlanta’s Zoning Code For Multifamily Residency

Restrictions for areas within apartments, condominiums, townhouses, duplexes, or other such residential dwelling units. Except for persons within commercial enterprises that have an adjoining property line or boundary with a residential dwelling unit, it is unlawful for any person to make, continue, or cause to be made or continued any noise in such a manner as to be plainly audible to any other person a distance of five feet beyond the adjoining property line wall or boundary of any apartment, condominium, townhouse, duplex, or other such residential dwelling units with adjoining points of contact. For the purposes of this subsection, “noise” shall mean human-produced sounds of yelling, shouting, hooting, whistling, singing, or mechanically-produced sounds made by radio-receiving device, television, stereo, musical instrument, phonograph sound amplifier or other machines or devices for the producing, reproducing, or amplifying of sound, or any combination thereof. For the purposes of this subsection, “property line or boundary” shall mean an imaginary line drawn through the points of contact of (1) adjoining apartments, condominiums, townhouses, duplexes or other such residential dwelling units with adjoining points owned, rented, or leased by different persons; or (2) adjoining common areas or adjoining exterior walls. Said property line or boundary includes all points of a plane formed by projecting the property line or boundary including the ceiling, the floor, and the walls.

Understanding Zoning Laws

It seems relatively reasonable to keep “ sound and/or noise at such a volume and in such a manner so as to create, or cause to be created, any noises or sounds which are plainly audible at a distance of 300 feet (100ft) or more from the building….”. What does plainly audible mean is poorly defined.

However, Paragraph c reference to multifamily residences is utterly ridiculous “…to be plainly audible to any other person a distance of five feet beyond the adjoining property line wall…”. To put this in to perspective the width between to two walls adjacent to my neighbors is 15’ 6” (a little under 5 meters). Which means I have an approximately five foot (~1.5 meters) strip for which I could complain about both of my neighbors sound level. This means if I can hear sounds from my neighbor’s dwelling on my toilet I can not complain (since most most toilets are not more than five feet from the adjacent wall). In a more close to home explain here is the section on noise from my residence agreement.

“Owners, guests, and lessees will be expected to reduce noise levels after 10:00 p.m. so neighbors are not disturbed. At no time are musical instruments, radios, televisions or other sources of noise to be so loud as to become a nuisance, the determination of which is left to the sole discretion of the Board of Directors.”

In this case do not disturb anyone after 10pm seems reasonable. In my residences rules the phase “The determination of which sound become a nuisance will be left to the board of directors.” How will nuisance be determined? When writing this article I could hear my neighbor hammering was this a nuisance?

It is important to understand that an assumption that both of these noise rules have is that you understand the sound levels effect on your neighbor. In Atlanta if you are having a party and the person 300ft (~91m) away from you is also having a party what is “ plainly audible” has now changed. In the case of my residence rules what is a nuisance changes depending on the make up of my Board of Directors. Also, in the case of my residency rules if my neighbors are not home after 10pm and I have not become deemed a nuisance by the current Board of Directors it is impossible for me to violate the noise rules.

It is unreasonable to assume that you know the affect of your sound level on your neighbors. What is needed to do an assessment? The first thing you would need to know is what is the sound pressure radiating on the surface of the wall. The second thing you would need to know is the attenuation provided by neighboring walls. Third,you would need to know what is plainly audible or disturbing to that neighboring person. It is not possible to estimate the sound attenuation of a wall by just by looking at it. It is very unlikely that your neighbor will let you setup a sound level meter inside their house to determine the attenuation. It is also nearly impossible to determine the contributions from inside the neighbors environment and the contribution your making to the sound level in their environment at all times. What is plainly audible or disturbing is not based on sound level they receive from you but, the environment the sound is received in. This is why I am not a fan of noise ordinances or quiet policies because they suffer from these same weaknesses.

Legal Rights

It seems relatively reasonable to keep “ sound and/or noise at such a volume and in such a manner so as to create, or cause to be created, any noises or sounds which are plainly audible at a distance of 300 feet (100ft) or more from the building….”. What does plainly audible mean is poorly defined.

However, Paragraph c reference to multifamily residences is utterly ridiculous “…to be plainly audible to any other person a distance of five feet beyond the adjoining property line wall…”. To put this in to perspective the width between to two walls adjacent to my neighbors is 15’ 6” (a little under 5 meters). Which means I have an approximately five foot (~1.5 meters) strip for which I could complain about both of my neighbors sound level. This means if I can hear sounds from my neighbor’s dwelling on my toilet I can not complain (since most most toilets are not more than five feet from the adjacent wall). In a more close to home explain here is the section on noise from my residence agreement.

“Owners, guests, and lessees will be expected to reduce noise levels after 10:00 p.m. so neighbors are not disturbed. At no time are musical instruments, radios, televisions or other sources of noise to be so loud as to become a nuisance, the determination of which is left to the sole discretion of the Board of Directors.”

In this case do not disturb anyone after 10pm seems reasonable. In my residences rules the phase “The determination of which sound become a nuisance will be left to the board of directors.” How will nuisance be determined? When writing this article I could hear my neighbor hammering was this a nuisance?

It is important to understand that an assumption that both of these noise rules have is that you understand the sound levels effect on your neighbor. In Atlanta if you are having a party and the person 300ft (~91m) away from you is also having a party what is “ plainly audible” has now changed. In the case of my residence rules what is a nuisance changes depending on the make up of my Board of Directors. Also, in the case of my residency rules if my neighbors are not home after 10pm and I have not become deemed a nuisance by the current Board of Directors it is impossible for me to violate the noise rules.

It is unreasonable to assume that you know the affect of your sound level on your neighbors. What is needed to do an assessment? The first thing you would need to know is what is the sound pressure radiating on the surface of the wall. The second thing you would need to know is the attenuation provided by neighboring walls. Third,you would need to know what is plainly audible or disturbing to that neighboring person. It is not possible to estimate the sound attenuation of a wall by just by looking at it. It is very unlikely that your neighbor will let you setup a sound level meter inside their house to determine the attenuation. It is also nearly impossible to determine the contributions from inside the neighbors environment and the contribution your making to the sound level in their environment at all times. What is plainly audible or disturbing is not based on sound level they receive from you but, the environment the sound is received in. This is why I am not a fan of noise ordinances or quiet policies because they suffer from these same weaknesses.

Residential Rights

The problem with current noise law it is ineffective or oppressive. Quiet times should be based at a community level using survey data updated relatively frequently. Just because a person can’t afford or does not want to live in a single family residence does not mean they should have to live in silence. You should be allowed to watch a movie with your surround sound blasting. You should be allowed to hammer a nail into a wall. You should be allowed to vacuum in the morning and night in your private residence. You should be allowed to say your credit card number over the phone without the fear that anyone can hear you. You should be able to sleep in on the weekend without hearing your neighbors footsteps or door closing. Noise law should be focused on making sure that both the public and private nuisances are protected. Public nuisances are threats health or well being of the community. A private nuisance is unreasonably or illegally interfering with some ones right to enjoy property. You should not annoy your neighbor but, you should not be harassed by your neighbor for any sound that you make. If you can not watch a movie or play an album loud on your own private property without the threat of action from your neighbors then your neighbor has become a nuisance. Below are solutions that I recommend.

Building Solutions

  • Every adjacent wall at minimum can be STC (Sound Transmission Class) 55 and should really be STC 60 and above measured in place (I would prefer these in OITC but, not as much information on partition that meet OITC (Outdoor–Indoor Transmission Class) ratings is provided)
  • All stairs and floors need to be acoustically isolated from surrounding structure. Preferred is that the walls between buildings dwelling be physically separate with each wall on a separate stubs.
  • All heating and cooling should be installed by default or in the case of air conditioning ducted if not already installed
  • All already built buildings should be forced to disclose an average STC rating with a raw 1/3 octave band going down to 80Hz for condo/apartment location (aka if you have 13 floors with the same floor plan take an average STC for rooms in that building position)
  • Builders and architects should have an average residential building STC rating attached to their name.
  • All signal wires should be in conduit to allow for easy replace and stop the drilling of holes in walls
  • All Door need to be isolated to the same standards walls
  • When multiple dwellings are in the same room they should all be soft closing door that are acoustically isolated (multiple room mates living in the same apartment)
  • IIC should be a minimum of 60

Noise Regulation Recommendation

  • The abolishment of all current noise ordinances.
  • 30dB(A) Leq (30 decibels A-weighted equivalent continuous sound level) night time average level and 45db(A)Leq Peak during night time hours as determined by the average workers start and finish time collected by survey
  • A peak daytime noise level of 60db(A) in neighboring apartments and an 45Ldn (45 decibel day-evening-night noise level) neighboring apartments.
  • The rebuilding and refunding of the EPA’s ONAC (Office of Noise Abatement and Control) from the Noise Control act 1972.
  • The definition of noise violation should always be inside living areas and not at property lines.
  • For outside of structures but, inside the property line noise should not cause hearing loss in 24 hours average of 70dB(A).

Additional Reading

Ambient Noise is “The New Second Hand Smoke” by Daniel Fink published In Acoustics Today

City Noise Might Be Making You Sick by Kate Wagner published in The Atlantic

Sources

Legal Articles about noisy neighbor

Top 5 Neighbor Disputes and How to Resolve Them by Betty Wang, JD

Legal How-To: Dealing With Noisy Neighbors by Betty Wang, JD

Can I Sue My Noisy Neighbor? by Andrew Lu

Reduce Noise Complaints With a Quiet Hours Clause by Erin Eberlin

Housing Articles

Study: Increased housing density helps combat climate change by Jeff Wattenhofer

To improve housing affordability, we need better alignment of zoning, taxes, and subsidies by Jenny Schuetz

Zoning, Land-Use Planning, and Housing Affordability by Vanessa Brown Calder

Atlanta’s Code of Ordinances section 74-131. Prohibited conduct.

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