The loud clattering of trains slowly arriving downtown might seem quaint to some urban ears, particularly when passing through a certified historic district. But don’t expect owners of commercial office space and high-end apartment buildings to wax poetic. All they hear is a harsh, grinding nuisance that threatens revenue, property values and the peace of mind of tenants.
When Lawrence Posner complained about railroad noise after buying an exquisite property in Mobile, Alabama, he was told by acquaintances that he’d get used to it. Some even claimed that they had grown fond of the rusty braying of iron horses. Nonsense, he thought.
“Noise from the trains was unbelievable. Awful. Deafening. Since the trains were running to and from a coal distribution facility nearby, they moved very slowly and had to blow their horns as they approached eight unregulated street openings, so it took forever to pass through,” he recalls, adding that excessive car and truck noise from a highway access ramp nearby was also troubling.
Posner had good reason to be concerned. The disruptive noise had been measured at 100 decibels, and the commercial complex he had purchased and restored in Fort Conde Village, in the center of the city, was less than 100 yards from the tracks.
The property includes a two-story colonial inn and four Victorian cottages that are closest to the rattling railroad. Two of the cottages are leased by a law firm and stevedore enterprise—businesses that appreciate quiet—while the other two are available to wedding parties that also enjoy the inn’s bedrooms, parlors and outdoor patio. Part of the appeal is the short distance to the city’s convention center.
The noise was so bad Posner recalls that Joe Theismann, a National Football League star, once began a speech in downtown Mobile by asking, “How does anybody sleep in this town?”
“I had to do something,” Posner says. “I had layers of interior Plexiglas storm windows and the double-hung windows that are typical for this type of historic building. But they didn’t help.”
An internet search led the real estate entrepreneur to Soundproof Windows, Inc. He learned that 90 percent of noise seeps through windows, not walls. This was critical information because Posner’s cottages each had expansive 10-foot-tall panes. And while dual-pane windows may deter heat and cold, a very different kind of acoustic engineering is needed to block nasty exterior disruptions.
Also, as a real estate entrepreneur that owns many properties, Posner was pleased to learn that large office, apartment and condo buildings need not replace every window to fix the problem.
Instead, the Reno, Nevada-based firm adds a second, inner soundproof window to buffer each existing window and control temperature as well as noise. The unique panels look just like the windows already on the building—adjustable or permanently closed—and they can be selectively installed in the most disquieting areas, near busy streets, highways and railroad crossings.
Although Soundproof Windows often visits new sites and installs test windows to measure before-and-after decibel levels, once Posner was convinced that the science was solid, he contracted for the installation of four windows. If they worked well, he would order more. He decided to have the windows installed on the Victorian cottages, with no loss of historic detail or beauty.
“With respect to car and truck noise nearby, it’s like somebody turned off the sound. You still hear trains, but well below the pain threshold. The experience was excellent,” he says, noting that he has since installed 46 more windows on the property.
Financial district commotion and property values
Living at the epicenter of downtown San Francisco’s bustling Financial District can be invigorating for professional people that like to mix business with pleasure. Popular restaurants, retails shops and cafes co-exist with corporate high-rises to make every need accessible.
But for neighborhood condo owners that are ready to sell or lease their homes, all the commotion may suddenly take its toll—on the bottom line.
Jeff Abadie, president of his building’s homeowner’s association (HOA), has a new appreciation for real estate valuations after correcting his own noise problem.
The financial advisor and his wife Kristina, a marketing developer for a tech startup, live in a four-story former warehouse that has been divided into 53 residential units. Their building is surrounded by busy streets and commercial properties. Roaring delivery trucks and other maintenance vehicles, such as waste removal, are the norm. And living on the second floor that overlooks a loud pedestrian walkway with eateries and coffee hangouts has forced them to wear earplugs when trying to sleep.
“It’s a fun place to live, but not at 2 a.m. with all the noise,” he says.
Abadie doubted that soundproofing options were available for the original 10-x-14-foot windows in his 100-year-old historic building. Then another homeowner in the building that had contracted with Soundproof Windows, Inc. invited Abadie and his wife to experience the sound of silence. They were stunned. No decibel studies were needed to convince them to make a change.
The wish to renovate historic properties is often thwarted by restrictions that preserve exterior design elements. But that was no problem for the Abadies because their three new windows were installed within their condo. By mimicking the style of the existing windows in color and material, the new product is all but invisible to the human eye.
“They do custom work, so at first glance, you can’t tell there is a difference,” he says, referring to the visual impact. But the aural change was seismic. “It was the first time we heard our refrigerator hum. We never knew we had noise in our place, that’s how noisy it was outside.”
The original windows were also drafty, which caused the building’s heating system to work overtime. Although each unit is not billed separately for utilities, Abadie says his new windows have tamed wild temperature fluctuations typical of the bay area.
“For the first time we have insulation—from the weather and real estate values. From a cost standpoint, we realized that if we were landlords we could now get premium rent because we took away the biggest problem of living downtown—noise. And should we ever decide to sell, from a value standpoint, the windows are a no-brainer investment,” he says.
When Abadie ordered his windows about a year ago, only a handful of HOA members had Soundproof Windows products installed. But residents that have visited his home are now poised to make the change, particularly since learning that two new construction sites will soon add more racket to the neighborhood soundscape. By the end of 2016, he guesses most of the units will have upgraded their windows.
“With two new buildings going up, a mix of commercial and residential, the 24-hour garbage pickup and action is only going to get worse,” he says.
Douglas Glenn Clark is a content creator based in Los Angeles, Calif.