Can’t Stop the Noise: Good practices to avoid and protect oneself from noise
Long exposure to noise adversely affects one’s wellbeing, so architectural design must be responsive to dwellers’ and workers’ sensitivity to unwanted sound
July 16, 2020
Written by Martin C. Galan
Art by Denise Fernando Gesilva
Unregulated exhaust systems of vehicles are noisy. Aircraft landing at 5:00 AM is noisy. The restaurant you frequent is noisy. Your neighbors are noisy. Their dog is noisy. Your housemate is noisy. What do you do? The younger generation sticks buds in their ears and tune out.
Sadly, prolonged exposure to all of the above (including loud music coming through the buds) will most likely result in deafness. Not to mention a very lonely life.
Why, then, has the government not been aggressive over this health concern? First of all, sound is not seen. There are no offensive billboards to tear down. There’s no such thing as a sound that will arouse our puerile interests along EDSA. There is little in the law or other repositories of conduct, moral or otherwise, that teaches us what offensive sound is.
Unwanted sound has been a problem since people started living together. Julius Caesar expressed displeasure over the noise of chariot wheels that kept him from sleeping well at night. He eventually forbade chariot riding around his court in the early morning hours.
If you do not have the status of Caesar, but are extremely annoyed by the modern day equivalent of the chariot, what do you do?
You first have to know how to quantify sound. Failure to do so will thrust any complaint or argument into the realm of the subjective. The end result will favor the one who shouts the loudest.
The human ear does not hear the different frequencies of sound at the same volume level. Our perception of sound is nonlinear. It is vital that we use an accepted scientific form of noise descriptor. In the discipline of audio and acoustics, the measure of loudness is the decibel, or dB. There are many forms of dB. We use the unit dBA or A-weighted because it focuses on the frequencies that the ear is sensitive to.
Noise is generally described as any unwanted sound. Your music may be someone else’s noise. This is where the argument starts. Your vinyl time in order to unwind may not go well with your neighbor, especially if it’s past twelve in the evening of a workweek. Who cares if its Shostakovich’s Fifth!
Studies have shown that people react to sound if it rises significantly above the average noise levels in the community. A person living in a rural area will react differently to a sound that would be largely ignored in the general area of a major city’s thoroughfare. A person living beside a major road will not mind the introduction of a new mass transport system because the jeepneys and tricycles plying the same route are simply much noisier than a new electric train.
There are primarily two forms of environmental sounds: natural and man-made. Natural sounds are often perceived and accepted as pleasing. Running water and the chirping of birds are often considered as sounds that relax us. Dogs barking (especially when it’s not your dog) are one of the exceptions to this rule.
Typical sources of irritating sound are those that are amplified, vehicular traffic, mechanical noises, and sound generated from construction sites. You can add to the list. What is disturbing is that long exposure to noise negatively affects one’s wellbeing.
The World Health Organization warns that people in the thousands all over the world are prematurely dying or developing diseases from living in a noise-filled environment. Due to constant exposure to noise, the body develops stress hormones, and in its effort to survive, the body changes its chemistry in order to cope. WHO’s 2010 report, Burden of Disease from Environmental Noise, says that studies conducted in Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, and Netherlands consistently show significant increases in blood pressure and cognitive impairment among children in kindergarten in areas exposed to environmental, especially road and air traffic, noise. Among adults, the most common effects of exposure to noise pollution are high sleep disturbance (primary insomnia), hypertension, and cardio-vascular diseases.
Hearing is the only sense that we cannot shut down. We can close our eyes, our mouth, not move, even breathe, but not stop hearing. As we sleep we still hear, so the body reacts and suffers even as we sleep.
To be fair, our legislators have created laws to control noise pollution. In 1977, PD1152, the Philippine Environment Code was signed into law. It put a maximum noise level number in zoned areas.
The Land Transportation Code and the National Building Code also have provisions on controlling loud mechanized sound. Sadly, it has never been thoroughly implemented. To enforce it today, over 40 years later, is impractical and probably even impossible because the decibel levels stipulated in the law are no longer attainable. Manila’s city noise over 40 years ago has exponentially increased. Like weed in your lawn, if left unattended for a long time, noise pollution becomes a deeply rooted menace.
The City of Makati passed Ordinance No. 2011-019, which prohibits “excessive, unnecessary, and unusually loud sounds…from Videoke/Karaoke systems or other amplified audio devices.” Although laudable in intent, it fails to identify in specific terms what noise is. It will fall upon the ears of the Barangay Tanods to determine whether the noise disturbs “the normal peace and calmness of the area.”
Again, we are left to fend for ourselves. Here are some good practices to avoid or protect oneself from noise:
If you are about to purchase or build on a piece of property, it is vital to assess and predict the impact of noise that is generated around your chosen place of work or residence.
Define the use of the structure. Do I require low levels of noise because of my business (call center) or am I sensitive to sound (a light sleeper)? If so, can I mitigate the situation by positioning the rooms away from the noise generators? Measure and determine the path from which the noise will pass through, always bearing in mind the receiving area. Does the sound go through soft ground such as lush grass? Coupled with distance, a certain amount of reduction in volume can be attained.
Temperature plays a factor, too. Cooler air in the upper atmosphere tends to bend sound waves vertically, thereby creating a “shadow zone.” If your structure falls in a shadow zone, you will benefit in the form of a perceptible drop in the volume of sound. Wind also plays a factor in the propagation or dissipation of sound. If sound travels against the wind, a shadow zone is also created. This is applicable for noise generated at least 400 meters away.
For multi-family housing and offices, it gets trickier. The proximity of the noise generator to the receiver is much closer. It is good to temper one’s expectations when it comes to these environments. There is no such thing as “sound proof” in any commercial construction.
When evaluating the premises, listen to the background noise. Is it high or low? If the street noise is high, you may not even hear your neighbor’s noise. If, on the other hand, a room is quiet, the noise that goes through the party wall may annoy you. Look for sound leaks in the doors, windows, pipe penetrations, partition perimeters. If you’re paying a premium for the office space or dwelling, ask whether the doors, floors, ceilings and walls are sound rated. This is to avoid noise generated by your neighbor’s appliances, the slamming of cabinet doors and garbage chutes. What passes in a medium quality condominium will not make the grade in a project marketed as a luxury building. Acoustics greatly affects the marketability of a project.
If the place fails to comply with the suggestions given above, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War offers good advice: “If you cannot control the environment, move out.”
Until proper and holistic legislation is made specifying the acceptable level of sound, we can only push to create an industry standard of care. The WHO study conducted in Europe ranks noise as the second worst environmental pollutant, next to particulate matter. Architectural design MUST be responsive to dwellers’ and workers’ sensitivity to unwanted sound. When proper acoustical treatment is specified in the design, it is relatively inexpensive to incorporate. It is always much more expensive and disruptive to retrofit a building to correct acoustical deficiencies.
We cannot, not stop hearing the noise!
This first appeared in BluPrint Volume 5 2011. Edits were made for BluPrint online.