Turning a deaf ear

I was at a talk recently where an architect took us through the idea of baugruppen*. This is the German term for affordable community housing funded by its residents, and it’s an idea generating interest in places around the world where property is becoming ever more unaffordable (like Sydney). We were shown examples in Berlin and they all looked lovely: modern buildings with spacious rooms, plenty of light, and loads of sustainable brownie points. And then our presenter mentioned something that chilled my blood. It was when she showed a photograph of the large courtyard garden in one development, into which the living rooms of two long blocks of apartments led. “And here,” she remarked, “is where people come out and meet, and where children play.” I managed to contain my groan. Because that’s my main objection to community living – other people. Or more precisely, the noise of other people.

In my mind, I’m sitting in my lovely, blond-wood apartment in Berlin, gazing through the open windows to the green space outside and thinking what a treasure this is to find in the middle of the city. The peace is broken by the sound of a crying baby and then some children run past my window, perhaps playing hide-and-seek, or chased by another group on tricycles. Their excited shrieks fill the air. Adults are gossiping nearby in one of the communal seating areas, and I know there’s going to be a barbecue later which will probably run on late. And as I look out at all this, my lovely, community-minded mind is saying: please, just shut the fuck up.

Now what sort of curmudgeon am I, when I recoil at the sound of children’s laughter and the gentle murmur of people talking? That’s right, I am a very curmudgeonly curmudgeon indeed. Because, while the general idea of living in a community appeals to me in theory, I know that I don’t want to be bothered with it if I don’t want to be bothered with it. And I certainly don’t want to hear my community all the time. And this is my main gripe, because so often architects seem to turn a deaf ear to the notion of the intrusion of noise. And I don’t understand why. Despite my baugruppen example, it’s something that affects domestic architecture as a whole.

Noise is one of the reasons people escape to the country from cities, to get away from sirens and cars, but also from the constant buzz of human voices. And while the countryside is certainly no haven of peace – the monotonous drone of agricultural machinery and mooing cows drifts for miles over open fields – it’s a different soundscape, usually less sharp, not so much in your face. Two or three days away and you feel refreshed. And yet we continue to build with little consideration for the way in which noise impacts on each of us.

advert for a gated community in China

As I’ve mentioned before, thanks to newly-relaxed planning laws, many of the old single houses of my neighbourhood are being replaced with developments of two or more dwellings, sometimes in clusters. Often it means that the main windows of some of these new buildings are placed along shared boundaries, instead of the old-fashioned suburban way of orienting main windows to the front and back (i.e. overlooking its own land) and putting secondary windows for bathrooms and hallways to the side. Now most architects have to take into account privacy and so they add screens and carefully-tilted louvres and even set windows up high so that neighbours won’t feel overlooked. But little is done about noise. The glass in a window doesn’t stop noise nearly so well as a wall, unless it is triple-glazed, which is rarely done here. Screens and louvres don’t restrain sound at all. And thanks to our warm and breezy climate, most people like to have their windows open for ventilation. Hence noise is fed out into the neighbouring homes. While it might seem like inconsequential stuff in isolation – the sound of television or music, a loud conversation, the high-pitched whine of a food mixer or a hairdryer, even a sneezing fit or a barking dog – it begins to intrude when it is directed straight at you.

I shudder when I see apartments which share a balcony, each space delineated by a glass screen or a wall. Often that screen doesn’t extend fully to the roof. It means that sound floats out of one apartment, echoes along the ceiling before skipping over the partition into the next door apartment. A conversation on one person’s balcony is transmitted along to all the others. It could so easily have been eliminated if the screen had simply been made full height, floor to ceiling, stopping noise from moving sidewards.

a balcony divider offering privacy but no sound protection

And it’s not only about external sounds. For years in London I suffered from the noise of my neighbour upstairs, thanks to the poor way an old house had been refashioned into several flats. It wasn’t that my neighbour was particularly noisy, just that there was virtually no sound insulation between their floor and my ceiling. An early night for me was out of the question if they were up late watching television. The scuffling sound of their dog’s excited scampering often woke me. Of course it worked the other way, too, and I cringe when I imagine what they heard coming out from my flat. Before that, I lived in a modern apartment which had concrete floors/ ceilings. There, the sound of a chair being dragged across the tiled kitchen floor above my bedroom was like nails on a blackboard.

When one of Australia’s most feted architects, Harry Seidler, designed an apartment building in Sydney in the 1990s, people rushed to live in the swankiest tower in town, with its fabulous views over the harbour. Almost immediately there were complaints and one of the main ones concerned the lack of sound insulation between apartments. The most intimate sounds were being transmitted with a beautiful clarity. In short, people had paid a fortune to hear their neighbours’ daily toileting regime.

It’s just another reason why I love Le Corbusier. His work has a particular sensitivity towards sound and privacy. Look at his Frugès development of the 1920s and you notice how a shared roof terrace is cleaved in two by a full-height wall and a canopy roof that directs sound away from each side. The sound of people socialising on one roof terrace doesn’t intrude on those sitting on the adjacent roof terrace. Compare that to an image from the baugruppen talk where individual roof terraces were placed atop a row of apartments, supposedly to give private space to each dwelling. Each of the narrow roof terraces was separated from its neighbour by a low wall, giving no privacy or noise protection. (I imagine sitting there, to enjoy my coffee in the winter sun, perhaps, when my next-door neighbour arrives to sit on her terrace to do the same. Two metres away. “Good morning,” she says to me. “Sod off,” is what I’d feel like saying. )

the separated roof terraces of the joined ‘skyscraper’ style houses at Pessac

Each of Le Corbusier’s apartments in the Unité d’habition in Marseille is surrounded by an airpocket so that it shares no walls with its neighbours, thereby reducing the transference of sound. Isn’t that the sign of a humane architect? This was decades ago and still we don’t seem to have learned to incorporate ideas like this.

Maybe it’s unfashionable to talk about sound. It’s curmudgeonly and saying that one doesn’t want to hear one’s neighbours can seem anti-social, or it speaks of entitlement and privilege, where only the very wealthy can afford to put distance between them and the noise of the hoi polloi. It speaks of a dainty constitution, like the Catherine Tate character who shrieks at any sudden noise, such as a toaster popping up. And yet to my mind, the containment or reduction of noise is a civilising thing. Peace is surely something that is enjoyed by everyone if they are given the chance, even teenagers.

I’m not talking about eliminating the ambient sounds of everyday life but about reducing them when it’s possible. And thoughtful design does that. We don’t have to turn up the music to block out the intrusive sound of the neighbours if sound insulation is present or windows properly placed. And that surely means that we feel nourished by the independence of our own living space where we set the noise level. For me, that means I’m in a far better mood to face the greater community outside, to open my ears and listen with a gentle heart. Not curmudgeonly in the slightest.

What’s your experience of noise in the home?

*Link to baugruppen images

the ultimate peace




Categories: Architecture, DesignTags: , , , , , ,


  1. sound, even more important in high density living.

  2. I’m 100% with you on this Colin! I don’t think our culture pays enough attention to our ears. Go into almost any Sydney bistro and you’ll be shouting over the other patrons, coffee grinder and music. I hate it. People must not complain too much or it would change.
    If there is a bad view, you can put up an interesting screen or frosted panes but you can’t turn away from noise.
    Mind you, sustainable design does want a lot of insulation and if the windows are all that are left to be done, it’s not too big an upgrade to ensure peace and privacy. Just triple glaze your own piece within your sustainable community and watch the silent movie outside in the courtyard if you’re into it, otherwise pull the blinds.
    i’m enjoying the peaceful sounds of my little country village, although I do hear the twice daily milk truck, a fair few lawn mowers and barking dogs. For the most part, it’s the birds that make my soundtrack and that suits me just fine.

    • I think there’s been a slight swing against noisy restaurants although it’s still rare to find a place to eat where four or more at a table can speak and be heard. And yes, building regulations help but most developers build to the minimum. As for an appreciation of sound transmittance, I think it’s more of a mindset thing. Le Corbusier valued peace in his home and saw it as important for all – I’m not sure it’s seen as important for other architects… Yes, country noise tends to be in the background with the occasional burst of traffic. Although I remember one sleepless weekend in the country when the cows cried out all night long for their calves, which had been removed. Heartbreaking.

  3. I totally agree with you! We live in suburban Paris and are lucky to have a back garden. But the beautiful modern house at the bottom of our garden has been designed in such a way that we can hear every clink of a fork or cry of their children. I find it amazing that the architect did not think of the noise impact on the surroundings when designing the house… and so we find ourselves becoming grumpy neighbours, which is not what we want either!

    • Funny you mention the clink of a fork – I wrote that in as an example and then took it out, believing people would think me mad for mentioning such a tiny sound. But you’re so right, it’s precisely these little sounds that can build into a major annoyance, and, as you say, transform a perfectly civil, neighbourly relationship into something approaching war. And there you were thinking the suburbs would be peaceful… As I said in another comment, one never finds out these things until after the move.

  4. Agree Colin. Community living is wonderful (and increasingly needed), filmic-ly speaking where the sound track is muted and the viewer thereby ‘hears’ whatever ambient sounds suit their taste and sensorium.
    Misophonia is a thing, heightened sensitivity to particular sounds or even sound in general. But even if a majority of people don’t share my personal suffering at the sound of crinkling crisp packets or clinking cutlery and chinaware or lonesome dogs or other people’s music choices at 10pm or toileting sound effects from two floors up, general attention to noise/sound in contemporary habitation design is poor.
    Visuals rule, it would seem. This is an unconscious (and unnecessary) distortion of reality in the face of the multi-sensory dimensions of actual life (as distinct from the silent architectural concept or the buildings realised therefrom). Sonic architecture is, after all, also a ‘thing’; perhaps it can now come into the mainstream.

    • I came across misophonia a couple of years ago and it was a eureka moment – ‘this is why I feel murderous when you chew food!’ I said to my partner (never mind eating an apple or nuts in my presence). I realise now that there are more of ‘us’ out there now. But I think some ambient noise affects everyone, not just we misophones, and while we can block out noises in general, it’s when they become specific, like being able to block out general conversation in a train but not the conversation directly behind you. You’re right, architecture is preoccupied with visuals, and few notice the care that goes into aural containment.

  5. I think this is a very valuable post.
    Apparently we are only born with only 2 fears – fear of falling and fear of loud noises. I am like the Catherine Tate character – loud noises can give me the physical feeling of an electric shock and so I jump a lot. It drives my husband mad, but he has learned that it is not me making a fuss but the way I am made. Consequently I am also hyper aware of making noise, not wanting to bother others.
    So you will not be surprised to learn that I would hate to live in a community building.
    My husband is currently converting one of our bedrooms into a music studio and a lot of work is going into sound insulation. He says that sound can escape in all sorts of ways.
    So well done Corb! Air pockets sound like a brilliant idea.

    • For me, it’s the small, repetitive noises – chewing with an open mouth sets my nerves jangling and I go into fight or flight mode! Like you, I tend to overcompensate by being quiet, although I daresay there are times when I crash about the place. The problem with noise, as your hubby wisely says, is that it can escape so easily and move through solid objects. I think it’s an enormous topic and one that isn’t addressed because people don’t own up to their irritation as it seems somewhat petty. The impact noise has, though, is huge. And I hope for your sake that his sound-proofing is thorough, however beautiful the music!

  6. I’m lucky that my apartment building has been designed so that balconies are all self-contained. When I was buying my apartment, I remember inspecting a newly-finished complex in Darlinghurst with blocks built around a central courtyard boasting plenty of concrete and no greenery. The balconies were separated by those flimsy small screens you mentioned. What a delightful combo of noise bouncing around those hard surfaces, day and night. Catherine Tate would be a basket case.

  7. Well, I live on a main road near the tube and on a corner. Corners generate enormous amount of noise because people stop on them and talk endlessly and unceasingly and they do argue late at night. I like the tube especially late at night when the interiors take on a warm yellow glow and one person sitting in a carriage looks like someone in a Hopper painting. I’m also near a school so 3.15s are interesting. Taxis parked up and running their engines drive me most nuts. The trouble with our flats is that when they were bought privately and done up the kitchens were moved. Ours has never been redesigned so now our neighbours above and below have kitchens where our bedroom is. That brings an interesting dimension to everyday living. The worst time was when we had some drug fuelled hookers (for want of a better expression) living under us. And they had a dog which very sensibly kept trying to run away from them. The noise they generated was quite unbelievable. As for communal living … I’m the kind of person who throws myself to the ground when the door bell goes so I don’t think I’d manage that at all well.

    • I laugh at your wonderful imagery but I feel your pain! Kitchen noises are particularly sharp. It fascinates me that it’s such a little-spoken about subject, although I know so many people who will mention the impact of a noisy neighbour if pressed. It’s as though there’s nothing we can do about and so it doesn’t seem worth complaining about. Which is kind of right, but it means there’s not a general understanding how impactful noise can be. I have been in several flats where a sudden loud noise is explained by, “Oh, that’s just my neighbour slamming a door” or “It’s bathtime upstairs!” So whether or not we live in a dedicated community, there’s little difference if we simply live in an urban setting. Although I sometimes stay in a country place and I can often hear the bloke across the valley, half a mile away, having a conversation, and I mean, I can hear what he’s saying… A call for me to finesse my skills to tune out.

  8. With you on that, living with tinnitus since about two years now (just woke up with it one fine morning) silence literally no longer exists and it is that more important to be able to filter surrounding sounds as they tend to get too overpowering quickly.

    • Hi Ingrid. I can only imagine how awful that must be (and I hope there’s always the possibility that it may disappear as quickly it appeared…). Constant sound is something that most of us experience only when we live in the middle of cities – the hum of aircon/ traffic/ planes that never stops – but at least a soundproof room can give some relief. We had a guest on the radio programme I’m on who was so sound sensitive that he had to build a soundproof house in order to sleep. But gosh, my heart goes out to you…

      • Thank you so much for your reply Colin, sorry for the late reply, took me a while to pick up blogging again, with several hospital visits and treatments these last weeks, next up are some sessions starting early January, giving tips and tricks on how to live with it as it stays for life, if that doesn’t help there is some medication but as a chronic backpain patient I already take enough meds to my opinion, so really hope this works out. As long as I am outside or am in conversation it’s easier to filter away, sometimes I read out loud the things I am typing down, even though the house is empty during the day when husband is at work, well except the cat, but he ignores me🤣 have a nice day!

      • Love your resilience! Good luck with the tips’n’tricks!

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