In buildings containing multiple dwelling units, it is inevitable that residents will hear their neighbours. Condominium lawyers are frequently contacted about noise issues. People often ask: Just how much noise is too much? What kinds of noises are condominium residents expected to put up with, and when is the condominium corporation required to step in? Should the neighbours be blamed, or poor construction? Can the developer be held accountable for noise transmission in new condominium buildings?
Condominium corporations can implement and enforce rules to eliminate noise caused by behaviour issues such as raucous parties. This article discusses noise that cannot be addressed through behavioural changes.
Noise transmission can also be attributed to construction or design deficiencies. Fortunately, noise problems caused by the building itself can be resolved through remedial work. There is an improving understanding of sound attenuation. More importantly, the provincial authorities, responsible for building standards, are finally taking notice of this problem and are preparing to introduce requirements relating to sound transmission that could cut down on noise complaints.
Condominium corporations should retain engineers with expertise in noise issues if construction or design deficiencies may be causing or contributing to noise complaints. This is because sound engineers can confirm whether there is a problem that needs to be addressed and provide concrete recommendations on how the situation can be improved.
Using specialised equipment, acoustical engineers can objectively measure the volume of noise entering a unit. If the condominium is subject to rules or agreements regarding permissible levels of noise, the level of noise entering the unit can be compared against the requirements to determine whether it is excessive. If the condominium does not have requirements pertaining to the transmission of noise, acoustical engineers can compare the noise levels against recommended guidelines for sound exposure in dwelling units. If the noise is within acceptable levels, the complaint might be dismissed. If the noise is considered to be excessive, further action will be required.
If an engineer determines that noise being transmitted into a unit exceeds required or recommended levels, the condominium corporation must investigate and intervene where it is appropriate to do so. Individuals exposed to high levels of noise often report sleep deprivation and adverse impacts on their physical and mental health. Condominium corporations are required, by section 117 of Ontario’s current Condominium Act, to ensure that dangerous conditions do not exist within units or the common elements. Permitting unacceptable levels of noise in a unit is a breach of the act because it can physically harm residents.
There are two ways of addressing excessive noise transmission: by eliminating either the source of the noise or its path of transmission. In some cases, the problem may be resolved at its source by replacing outdated equipment or servicing equipment with moving parts. If this is not possible, the path of noise transmission should be addressed.
Noise can be transmitted through building components such as floors and walls. Structure-borne noise transmission, or vibration, is a common problem in condominiums because mechanical equipment is often installed in close proximity to dwelling units. Impact noise, due to objects being dropped or dragged, is common where dwelling units are stacked. Structure-borne noise can be addressed by isolating the source of the noise from the structure. “Isolators” such as hangers, springs, or rubber pads can be used.
Noise can also travel directly through wall and ceiling assemblies. Some residents report hearing their neighbour speak in a low voice. This problem is usually caused by poor construction or poorly designed wall assemblies. One condominium, which was converted from a church, experienced severe noise transmission between dwelling units. Investigation revealed that the demising walls (between units) did not even reach the ceiling! This construction flaw in the lofty ceilings was hidden behind large structural beams.
All of the noise issues described in this article can be attributed in some way to the builder. The builder may have failed to install mechanical equipment in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations, failed to ensure that construction was completed according to the specifications, or designed a building without proper soundproofing. However, this lawyer is not aware of many cases where builders have been held accountable for noise transmission into residential units. Most buildings experiencing noise transmission between units actually meet or exceed building code requirements. The problem is that the building code has not addressed noise transmission in a meaningful way.
In 2010, minimum standards for sound transmission were introduced into the National Building Code. The 2010 code requires demising walls between residential units to be designed to prevent a certain amount of noise transmission. However, the 2010 code only mandates requirements pertaining to wall assembly design. The 2010 National Building Code does not address structure-borne noise transmission from materials flanking demising walls and does not contain any limit on the volume of noise that can enter a dwelling unit. Consequently the 2010 code does not address the practical reality of noise transmission.
Fortunately, the situation is changing. In 2015, the National Building Code was revised to include minimum requirements for apparent sound transmission (ASTC) and materials flanking demising walls. “Apparent sound transmission” is the total sound that enters a residential unit through all possible transmission paths. The 2015 code therefore regulates the volume of noise actually heard by residents, as opposed to regulating construction features. When the new building code requirements are implemented in Ontario, dwelling units experiencing excessive noise will not meet code. It is anticipated that as a result of these changes, condominium purchasers will be able to hold builders accountable for noise issues through Tarion or through construction deficiency lawsuits. These requirements may be phased into the Ontario Building Code in January, 2019.
The changes to the building code will not be retroactive. Buildings that met code when they were constructed are considered code compliant. Existing condominiums can still work towards quieter units. The following steps may help to reduce noise transmission:
- Require rugs and acoustical under pad on at least 75 per cent of flooring within dwelling units. This will dampen sounds coming into units and will minimize sound reverberation within units.
- Require all equipment, including washers, dryers, treadmills, and speakers, to be on vibration isolators.
- When noise issues are reported, retain a contractor to ensure all holes and gaps between units are sealed. Poorly sealed electrical outlets and pipe penetrations can result in sound (and smoke) transmission.
- When replacing mechanical equipment or building components, ensure soundproofing is factored into the design. Although this will no doubt increase the cost of the work, it is likely to reduce problems in the long run.
- When units are renovated, insist upon materials and designs with high soundproofing ratings (especially when carpet is being replaced by hardwood flooring).
Sound transmission into dwelling units is incredibly frustrating for affected residents. Noise issues should not be ignored. Condominiums that address noise issues will have happier residents and, in all likelihood, higher market values.
Megan Mackey is a partner at Shibley Righton LLP.