Things That Go Bump Next Door

(by Matthew A. DeBellis) Loud music, screwing and conversations about strap-on dildos–she’s heard it all. The voices pass nice and clear through the wall she shares with her neighbors.

“Sometimes they talk about interesting stuff, sometimes it’s boring,” says Amber Howle, who lives in a Haight-Ashbury studio. “But it’s always loud.”

Every apartment dweller has heard the sound of bed boards creaking and the exchange of moans and mutterings coming from next door neighbors. That’s all good and natural, but do you ever wonder just how thin your walls are?

Well, they’re probably thinner than a toothbrush is long. That means when neighbors sit by their respective walls, they’re closer to each other than some blood relatives get.

In dentistry and garage door openers, there has been steady progress, but the building industry hasn’t made widespread improvements in one important area: sound privacy in multi-tenant housing.

Developers, whose sight of the bottom line rarely wavers, frequently choose to build thinner walls because they cost less, architects say. And developers and architects sometimes simply overlook how their designs influence the way sound travels from one unit to another.

Lawsuits and College Degrees

“Some architects and developers are unconscious,” says Charles Salter, president of Charles Salter Associates, a Financial District firm that consults builders on acoustic design.

Salter, who founded his company in 1975, has testified as an expert witness in more than 100 sound cases.

Even the risk of lawsuits doesn’t alert some builders, who press for the cheapest materials and design, and when are later presented with a lawsuit, plead ignorance, point to the contractors, and say, “What do I know about construction? I have a degree in English Lit,” Salter says.

Developers disagree, of course.

Joe O’Donoghue, president of the San Francisco Residential Builders Association, says developers construct high-quality buildings to retain tenants and pour concrete walls–good for blocking noise–in buildings taller than 55 feet in order to comply with building codes.

Architects can be artsy types who sometimes want to avoid designs based on the traditional 90-degree angle, and developers tend to be more comfortable working with typical designs. It’s no wonder that architects and developers have a strained relationship. Not surprisingly, O’Donoghue says his organization doesn’t get along with architects.

Sound Liabilties

The level of sound that travels through shared walls is a serious concern for architects and developers. Simply put, poor acoustic construction is a liability.

Apartment renters and condo owners pay big money to live in The City, and they don’t want to hear their neighbors cooing. Next-door noise can anger and consume the lives of irritated tenants, leading to lawsuits against developers.

Unfortunately for plaintiffs, the minimum soundproof standards rely on neighbors being reasonable–an often preposterous assumption. That’s why sound-sensitive tenants are miserable next door to those who act as if they’re living on a farm, banging around at odd hours.

A San Francisco law passed in 1972 made it a violation to have amplified sound–from stereos, musical instruments, TVs–more than five decibels above the prevailing noise level. That means that loud music is forgivable during the day when the city bursts with sounds, but not at night when it quiets. The San Francisco Police Department is the primary enforcer of noise complaints.

“Acoustical Isolation”

The expectations of today’s urban dwellers are higher because they’re paying more and increasingly working at home, says Rick Williams, a partner at Van Meter Williams Pollack, a South of Market firm that designs affordable housing and condominiums. Urbanites want homes to be a refuge from city and neighbor noise. They desire “acoustical isolation,” he says.

As expectations rise, urban sounds–traffic, sirens, MUNI streetcars–are more noticeable.

Developers are hard pressed to find virgin ground in San Francisco’s dense landscape and in recent years have built in areas thick with urban noise: South Beach, rimmed by The Embarcadero thoroughfare and Muni street car line; the eastern edge of Potrero Hill, near Highway 101; and South of Market, where lofts were constructed along Harrison and Brannan streets.

Real Close Neighbors

One typical unit-dividing wall built today is 5 5/8 inches wide: a 3 1/2-inch wood frame, two pieces of 5/8-inch sheetrock, a 1/2-inch sheet of sound-isolating metal and a 3/8-inch piece of plywood, says Laurence Kornfield, a chief building inspector for The City.

“There are literally inches between you and the other guy,” says Yves Rathle, a 19-year architect who’s worked on multi-tenant projects in San Francisco, Boston, and New York.

Before California adopted minimum soundproof standards in the 1970s, wall thickness in San Francisco buildings varied. The City’s oldest residential properties, such as the Victorians, were constructed with walls ranging from two inches to 12 inches thick.

Rathle lives north of the Panhandle in a Victorian flat built in the late 1800s. His bedroom shares a wall with his kids’ room, but he can’t hear their racket because of the sound-absorbent wall carpenters put up more than a hundred years ago. The wall is six inches thick: a two-inch wide wood frame, several strips of wood lath, and layered stucco, all of which absorbs the din coming from the next room.

Live with It

Architects and developers must consider the element of sound in the first stages of a project to balance sufficient sound proofing with costs agreeable to developers, Williams says. When designers and developers overlook acoustics, tinny buildings where neighbors can eavesdrop result.

Aside from upgrading a shared wall at a cost of $10-$15 per square foot, an unlikely choice for renters, there’s nothing a tenant can do to reduce the level of sound coming from next door, says Salter, the acoustic expert. Except ask neighbors to keep it down.

“You’re at the mercy of your neighbors,” says architect Rathle. “If they don’t give a f***, that’s where you’re at.”

Matthew A. DeBellis

Originally published in the San Francisco Examiner

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