Pietro Cicognani, an architect, made a risky promise when he undertook the $3.5 million renovation of a Fifth Avenue penthouse with wraparound terrace views. When finished, he said, the apartment would be silent.
It was risky because noisy elevator motors and rooftop exhaust fans had required the previous residents to raise their voices to be heard, and the apartment shook so much that “if you had a tub full of water,” he said, “you could see the surface of the water ripple.”
The building’s management had deemed the problem irreparable, and settled for turning off the ventilators when the penthouse’s residents were trying to sleep. The noise, Mr. Cicognani said, was the most severe he had heard in his 28 years as an architect.
But Mr. Cicognani said he was comfortable gambling his reputation because he had an ace up his sleeve: a mechanical engineer who is an expert in acoustics.
The engineer tested the penthouse to find the problematic noise frequencies, then used accelerometers to measure the shaking. She determined which noises were airborne and which were from vibration. With that information she was able to specify materials and construction methods that would hush the rattle and hum.
Throughout the 3,500-square-foot apartment, pipes and ducts were wrapped in acoustic barrier insulation, walls and ceilings were hung on vibration-absorbing rails and floating floors were installed, at a total cost of about $200,000.
When the owners visited the treated apartment, Mr. Cicognani said, “the relief on their faces” let him know that his reputation as a designer was safe. “We have clients that spend a lot of money for these things,” he said, “and silence is as luxurious as a beautifully wood-paneled room.”
Unfortunately, apartment noise is not relegated to the one percent. Sirens, rooftop fans, construction and upstairs neighbors who clomp about like a team of clog-dancing Clydesdales are common conditions of city living.
There are no reliable figures, but anecdotally the noise-control industry has been growing along with the demand for, and number of, noise control materials — from recycled rubber padding to insulation made of shredded bluejeans.
Sound Seal, a manufacturer of noise control materials based in Massachusetts, said this year its sales were up 15 percent over last year for new home and remodeling products, and sales of its Impacta sound-absorbing flooring were up 22 percent.
These materials make it possible for contractors, architects and even do-it-yourselfers to tackle noise. While adding rails, springs, pads and special wallboard to quiet even a modest apartment can run into tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes a fix requires as little as $100 worth of acoustic seals for a hallway door.
The solution is seldom as simple as adding insulation. Noise is insidious. No two room hums are exactly alike, and what silences one might make another worse. “What a contractor did across town that worked 99 percent of the time might not work for you,” said Alan Fierstein, an acoustical consultant who owns a 39-year-old New York firm called Acoustilog.
Bonnie Schnitta is the owner of SoundSense, another of New York’s acoustical consultancies. Dr. Schnitta, who has a Ph.D. in signal processing, and who worked with Mr. Cicognani on the Fifth Avenue apartment, was recently called to a family’s fashionable NoHo walk-up. Three years ago, the 2,200-square-foot apartment had been taken down to the studs, and a floating floor had been installed. Floating floors isolate noise by both absorbing and blocking sound.
In this case, two layers of plywood subfloor were covered with a vibration-isolating mat, topped with another layer of plywood and capped with 200-year-old hemlock flooring salvaged from a Philadelphia factory.
Despite great care on the part of the architect and the contractor, there was a problem. When the family’s twins hit the toddler stage, the downstairs neighbors said the floor hadn’t worked. Rugs were added upstairs, to no avail, then rug pads, which didn’t help much either. Contractors were consulted. They suggested steel plates or poured concrete at a cost of $60,000 to $70,000.
Dr. Schnitta entered the picture at this point. She took readings and recommended a 7/16-inch-thick sound-damping mat that combines dense vinyl with a springy foam layer. This fall, after $2,000 of the padding was installed under the rugs, the sound downstairs went from a measurement of 30 decibels to 5 decibels.
“It was the difference from the sound of a starter pistol to that of a car door closing at a distance,” Dr. Schnitta said.
Part of the difficulty in damping sound is that it moves in two ways. Both high- and low-pitched noises can be airborne, like a child’s incessant piano practice that comes through a wall. Low-pitched noise, like the grating sound of a chair scraping the floor above, tends to move as vibration through a structure’s framing. Sometimes it’s a combination of the two, like from a TV mounted on a common wall.
A compounding issue is that it takes only a very small gap to let in a lot of sound.
“If you have a weakness in a wall that is only 1 percent of the total area, the sound transmitted through could double,” said Ryan Glotzbecker, the founder of the acoustical consulting firm Eremos in New York. “This could be the difference between hearing a slight beat from your neighbor’s stereo to being able to pick out the lyrics and sing along.”
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