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Addressing Climate Change Requires Quiet

Oct 12, 2007
As the world awakens to the emergency of climate change, we must begin to look at every facet of life to see things that are right in front of us, but unobvious. CO2 and other greenhouse gases have clearly and undeniably changed our climate forever. A rise in temperatures and sea level are guaranteed at this point. The question is not if, but when.

Americans in particular have enjoyed sprawling communities far from the workplace for the better part of 50 years. We have become used to large houses on quiet streets, far from the action and noise of the city. And we have become used to longer commutes, 25% longer than a few decades ago with some over 60 minutes in each direction. Wasting the little time we have and belching CO2 the whole way there and back.

Recently, there has been a move back to cities, in high quality multifamily and mixed use communities, especially by the younger generation. They enjoy the activities, proximity to entertainment, and easy maintenance this style of living bring. And it turns out that this alone could reduce CO2 by 30% or more, very rapidly. High quality multifamily projects in urban environments help in several dramatic ways. To start, most people who live there also work close by. They take public transportation daily or walk or ride a bike. Taking millions of cars off the road every day.

The dwellings are beautiful and upscale but significantly smaller than a single free standing house. They are built tighter, with more insulation, and the heating can be very efficient with most heat loss occurring into an adjacent unit (this sharing some energy). The CO2 generated due to the heating and cooling of condo's can be 70% less than a single family home.

The amount of lawn to water is close to zero (saving CO2 from pumping the water to the home and also saving precious clean water). And the amount of materials used to build a condo versus a single family home can be 30% to 50% less, saving in CO2 from manufacturing these items (a major source of CO2 actually) as well as the transportation to the jobsite and installation time and energy.

Without questions, one of the best moves a person can make to have a major impact on the environment is to purchase a condo or townhome in an urban setting. If everyone in the US lived in this way, we could cut carbon emissions by 1B metric tons or more. That is about what Italy and the UK generate as a whole combined.

But today, the number one complaint of occupants is noise. And it is this noise that keeps people from moving into urban environments, and thus continuing to generate more CO2. Noise from the street, noise from neighbors, noise when you are trying to sleep.

According to a 2007 report by the World Health Organization, excessive noise in everyday life is not only responsible for unhappiness, poor learning, poor concentration, stress, poor sleep and overall crankiness but it is also responsible for deaths. Yes, you read it correctly, deaths. How many deaths? According to the report, 3% of heart attack deaths can be attributed to noise in everyday life. The stress and sleep deprivation caused by everyday noise in urban environments is responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths annually. That is a wake up call.

What to do? Well, new technology now exists to deal with both street noise as well as neighbor (party wall) noise. Easily and cost effectively.

Street noise is being addressed by newer high STC windows and doors. Sound Transmission Class (STC) is a way to measure how much noise gets through. High quality dual-pane windows from most every major manufacturer typically have an STC rating of only 27 to 29. Fine for a quiet street, but not interesting for an urban setting. High STC windows from several manufacturers now exist which raises STC values to 38 to 42 or more. That is 50% to 60% less noise. Of course, if you don't ask your builder for these you may not get them. They can cost 3X what low cost windows do. But it is worth it. You will sleep better and be less agitated everyday. And what is that worth? A few dollars a month on the mortgage ... probably.

Party walls can be handled properly or poorly and often it is poorly (unfortunately). Old techniques such as resilient channels often perform poorly or fail in time. Due to the advent of home theaters, party walls should be STC 60 to 65 or even higher. But the law, written decades ago, requires only STC 50 walls (or STC 45 after installation), which is barely enough to isolate simple conversation and not much else.

It used to be difficult to achieve wall STC's of 65 or more, but that changed with the introduction of soundproof drywall in 2003. This is a newer category of products that actually saves builders money and provides significantly improved STC values. STC 50, 60, 70 and even 80 walls have been built and tested for several years now using these products. And while the drywall itself is more expensive than standard drywall, it is overall cheaper to the builder to hit a given STC value than older methods (including time and labor) and is much more reliable. So you can save money and never hear your neighbor again.

Floor/ceiling systems can suffer from similar issues in units with neighbors above or below. And again, new technologies exist to deal with these including the use of soundproof drywall on the ceilings and damped subfloors above plus advanced flooring isolation.

What this leads us to is the important and undeniable connection between quiet living environments and climate change. According to a survey completed by the National Research Council in Canada in 2001, there is a direct tie between people wanting to stay and the STC values of party walls. As STC approached 60, some 75% of respondents were happy with their environment and wished to stay. As STC dropped to 40, a full 45% wanted to move out. And noise was the big complaint at that level. And if people are unhappy living in their condo, they will leave and tell others to stay away.

If we are to impact climate change through urbanization (and we must), we must also deal with the noise issue head on. This isn't about saving a few dollars or doing it the old way because that is good enough to meet code. Instead, it is about significantly impacting CO2 while encouraging people to move into and enjoy quality urban settings. And they will only do that if builders address their number one complaint ...noise. It is time all builders take responsibility and build-in high STC windows, doors and walls. And buyers take responsibility and ask for this as an amenity (or ask about STC ratings) before you buy. This may inspire builders to do what is right because you are asking for it. Otherwise, you'll be in that 45% that want to move back out, and do more harm to environment, all due to a noise problem easily solvable today.

Save the planet: buy a (really) quiet condo.
About the Author
Kevin Surace is CEO of Quiet Solution. More information on Quiet products can be found at www.quietsolution.com
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