Buses, industry and loud neighbors

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July 19, 2004 // UPDATED 2:32 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Reducing noise in urban homes

The appeal of Downtown life has a catch for some -- too much noise.

Whether it's the next-door neighbor who cranks the stereo too high, the wail of the steam plant next to your apartment building or the jet flying overhead, the blaring sounds of city life can be deafening.

Most urbanites put up with it; those who can't have long since packed up and headed for the 'burbs or the woods.

The average noise level outside a city apartment building can be up to 1,000 times more intense than in a rural neighborhood, according to a research paper prepared by Dr. Alice H. Suter, an audiologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

While some might view the noise as a mere annoyance, it can come with serious side effects.

The health effects from urban noise can range from high blood pressure to cardiac problems.


The Stone Arch Apartments, 601 SE Main St., along the Mississippi near St. Anthony Main -- not to mention the University of Minnesota steam plant, the Metal-Matic pipe manufacturing factory and an old rail line -- have been outfitted with all sorts of special features to block industrial noise.

The noise insulation measures were required under state building codes.

The developer behind the project, Steve Minn, chief financial officer of Bloomington-based Lupe Development Partners, faced stiff opposition from neighborhood leaders living nearby, Metal-Matic and some city officials when he proposed rezoning the industrial area for residents. Minn has since settled a lawsuit with the city on the matter.

Barbara Boon, a business manager for the Stone Arch Apartments, said residents appear content at the apartment complex, which features multicolored panels of corrugated steel and sits at the foot of the Stone Arch Bridge.

"We have had no complaints about noise. It's unbelievable," Boon said, adding some tenants talk about hearing the steam plant wail during the winter months.

Steven Orfield, president of Orfield Laboratories, Inc., works on noise-reduction projects throughout the Twin Cities and consulted on the Stone Arch Apartments. His firm is one of the country's top multidisciplinary consulting firms, working on acoustics, lighting and other design issues.

However, buildings such as the Stone Arch Apartments, which are designed with sound acoustic principles in mind, are the exception to the rule in Minneapolis, Orfield said.

The apartment building features double-paned windows with air cavities in between the panes and thick walls designed to block out 40 decibals of noise, he said.

Orfield Laboratories put several manufacturers vying to work on the apartments to the test. Several fell short of claims they made about noise reduction, among other things, he said.

"Broadly, with regard to new units, you want to buy something an acoustical person has analyzed, has recommended and people have followed an acoustical plan in building it. If that does not happen, it will not be a good unit," Orfield said.

For those living in older buildings, such as old flour mills with large, porous walls, noise problems are more common, he added.

"There have been a fair number of projects Downtown that have been warehouse conversions that have had loads and loads of complaints and some significant litigation," he said, adding that he recently served as an expert witness in an arbitration hearing on a Downtown condo project with noise problems.

"They are often told by the salesman, 'This will be as quiet as your house.' This is never true. ... They move in with an expectation that far exceeds performance," he continued.

What to do

So what can renters or homebuyers do, short of litigation, to keep things quiet?

Orfield insists condo-purchasers should consult an acoustical expert to check out the quality of the building's construction. And renters and potential condo owners alike should ask if building management has paid for such a review. On average, it costs $20,000-$30,000 for a sound expert to check out all the noise issues for an entire building, Orfield said.

He said most things people do on their own to buffer the noise do little to quiet a room if there are serious construction problems.

"If people put absorption materials on their walls, the absorption materials don't stop sounds. What stops sounds is structural density, and structural density means walls that are well built and floors that are well built," he said. "No matter what a person does inside their unit, if the basic construction is poor, really subpar, there is very little short of rebuilding their floor, ceiling or adding to the basic wall materials. There is very little they can do."

Still, several companies tout soundproofing tools to minimize the annoying music of your next-door neighbor or the snoring apartment dweller living above you, at the very least.

Some residents turn to white noise to mask annoying sounds at work or at home. White noise or white sound is a combination of high to low frequencies that effectively cancels out other sounds nearby. It is said to have a peaceful, calming effect to those who use it to help them sleep or concentrate at school or work.

Companies sell white noise sound machines, generators and compact discs.

The Web site www.nonoise.org, a clearinghouse on information about noise pollution, has several links to companies selling noise insulation products, including white noise products. The Vermont-based Noise Pollution Clearinghouse can also be reached at 1-888-200-8332.

The Web site has a list of products and services designed to deal with all types of noise pollution: heating and cooling systems, barking dogs and lawn equipment, among other things.

Some of the more common ways to soundproof your room involve adding a layer of acoustical or studio foam, or a vinyl barrier, to the walls. But most experts suggest checking to make sure the walls are constructed properly before going forward with a do-it-yourself method.

The Web site, www.howtosoundproofaroom.com also has tips on soundproofing walls, ceilings and windows with links to information about acoustic foam and wall panels. Pennsylvania-based American Micro Industries, Inc., the Web site's author, can also be reached at 1-800-558-2058.