A Bedroom in Midtown Quietly Leads the Battle Against City Noise
People like to tell me how loud New York is. They email my Ask Real Estate column complaining about the noises that torment them during the day and keep them awake at night. There are the usual suspects – barking dogs, crying babies, outdoor diners, jackhammers and sirens. But even seemingly pleasant sounds — wind chimes, children playing, opera songs — can induce rage, given the right circumstances.
So when I walked into the PinDrop, a space billed as “one of the quietest rooms in the world,” inside a nondescript Midtown office building, I thought of all those New- Disgruntled Yorkers and wondered if maybe I had entered acoustic nirvana.
Or maybe not. The room was so quiet it hurt.
I felt like my ears were ringing. Dan Abatemarco, acoustic consultant for AKRF, the environmental engineering and consulting firm that designed this piece, told me my reaction was common. City dwellers are so unaccustomed to silence that they often associate this feeling with clogged ears. It also makes people feel uneasy, which is why “A Quiet Place” is such a scary movie and why so many New Yorkers carry white noise machines when they travel. Too much silence is suspect.
“It’s almost a primal instinct that something is wrong,” Mr Abatemarco said, as he sat down one recent afternoon to operate the sound equipment.
About the size of a typical conference room, the PinDrop has no windows and two giant flat-screen TVs against one wall, giving it a serious situation room vibe. And he’s literally suspended in space. The floor floats, resting on insulating blocks. The Sheetrock ceiling is suspended on springs. The walls have double rows of studs on insulation pads, as well as multiple layers of Sheetrock and insulation. There are no parallel walls, making it more difficult for sound waves to bounce back. Acoustic panels hang from the walls and ceiling. And everything is closed by a soundproof door. The result is a space so quiet that a low-noise microphone picks up just 13 decibels. (A whisper registers at about 30 decibels.)
Homeowners, developers, designers and architects engage AKRF to help them figure out how to make their brownstones, condos, new and remodeled buildings sound a little more like this room. Soundproofing is about keeping unwanted noise out, and acoustics is about improving the quality of the sound around you by controlling how it resonates and reverberates through a space. AKRF consultants visit construction sites and properties, take measurements and offer suggestions on how to solve both problems.
Earlier this month, the company opened the room as a space to turn up the volume of its acoustic tips — so customers can actually hear what the tips sound like.
Raise the living room ceiling, and how much stronger will it be? Would acoustic windows reduce street noise enough to be worth the cost? How quiet would the nursery be with another layer of insulation? Play a recording of, say, the subway rumbling, and the engineers can try again with double-glazed windows, then acoustic windows. Add the sound of an HVAC system and you get closer to what your bedroom might look like under those conditions.
“If they could just hear it, they would know what the right choice is,” Benjamin Sachwald, acoustics consultant at AKRF, said of his clients.
Mr Sachwald, who plays drums, says he enjoys listening to music in the room through the huge speakers and subwoofers because, well, the music sounds pretty amazing when nothing else is competing. . (He uses the phrase “sonic bliss” a lot.) “Music, when you listen to it in a room like this, you are transported to another world.”
I visited the PinDrop to sample all the noises that taunt New Yorkers, looking for the breaking point where a noise goes from merely annoying to worthy of a 311 call. And New Yorkers don’t hesitate not to call 311 to let off steam over the noise. Read carefully NYC OpenDataI found that more than half of the 5.2 million noise complaints recorded by 311 since 2010 were for residential noise — further proof that hell is actually other people.
Of all the noises New Yorkers love to hate, the AKRF crew was particularly taken with the sound of elevated trains, which rumble in parts of Queens and Brooklyn. So I tried. The volume has been set to what you would hear with the windows open if your apartment faced the slopes. “Why did you open your windows, I don’t know,” Mr. Abatemarco said as he turned the dial.
At 94 decibels, my jaw quivered. Then, thankfully, it created the effect of a closed, single-glazed window, and the din dropped to 75 decibels – not quite mind-numbing, but definitely miserable. The double glazed glass protected my ears a bit more. But with a set of noise-reducing acoustic windows, the volume dropped to around 46 decibels – about as loud as a public library.
I had a similar experience when we sampled the thud of pile driving, which jackhammers can sound quaint in comparison. Layer enough insulation in the walls and add high performance windows, and the sound of pure misery sounded more like a dull heartbeat in the background.
Drowning out the noise between the apartment walls was actually a lot easier. With the right insulation, the sound of a baby crying or a house party next door was dampened enough to keep life going peacefully.
But here’s the catch with this exercise: chances are you don’t live in a new construction. And chances are your building was built before 1968, the year New York’s building code added acoustical requirements. That means whoever erected your building probably didn’t care if you heard the kids upstairs catapulting themselves from their bunk beds. So how do you make your life more tolerable when the windows and walls are already in place?
The AKRF consultants had some suggestions for those of us who didn’t have the budget or the ability to call in the experts and rip out the windows and insulation. If the sound comes from outside, you can add acoustic curtains or noise canceling window inserts. Drafty windows are the culprit – if air can get through, so can noise. Same thing with the light: if you can see it coming through the door frame, it might be time to clean or replace the door seals.
After feeling almost every distracting noise I could have imagined in the quietest room in town, I emerged onto Park Avenue South just as a severe spring storm was setting in. I rushed to catch my train, barely registering the cacophony around me.
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