Opinion: Sounds of silence a challenge in Vancouver

When crossing at an intersection, have you ever been startled by a loud horn from behind you, only to discover it was someone locking his Explorer?

West Side resident Karl Raab has, and he responded to my invitation to Courier readers for ideas from other countries on how to improve Vancouver’s livability.

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Mr. Raab wrote that after returning from two decades in Europe, he and his wife were appalled at the use of horn-based acoustic vehicle alerts in their formerly quiet neighbourhood.

He thought these honks and beeps were not only intrusive — they were potentially unsafe since they could distract drivers and pedestrians.

Vehicles in Europe make no such noise, as European Union regulations mandate visual signals.

I am told that a vehicle dealer can disable the remote’s horn function in a few minutes since many vehicle security systems have a switch with two positions: “North America” and “Other.”

Mr. Raab also introduced me to two initiatives to address urban noise: The Right to Quiet Society (quiet.org) and silencethehorns.org.

I share Mr. Raab’s disdain for unnecessary urban noises. In addition to beeping security alarms, I would add excessively noisy automobile mufflers, motorcycles and inconsiderate neighbours.

I particularly dislike noisy motorcycles. That is why I was pleased to read that Harley Davidson is coming out with an electric motorcycle.

As the owner of an electric car, I know first-hand how much quieter electric vehicles can be.

While I suspect most motorcyclists will scorn electric motorbikes since they like the noise and attention they attract while roaring down a quiet street, in time I expect more and more electric cars, motorbikes and scooters on the road.

It is perhaps not just a coincidence that since deciding to write a column about urban noise, the Courier has featured two stories on this topic.

Last Wednesday, reporter Naoibh O’Connor wrote how noise topped the list of complaints against Port Metro Vancouver; and on Friday, reporter Christopher Cheung told the story of how Richmond industrial activity is disturbing the residents of Vancouver communities along the north shore of the Fraser River.

As higher density residential development encroaches on industrial land, we can expect many more similar complaints, as well as many concerns associated with condominium living.

As an architect and developer of multi-family buildings, I have had a longstanding interest in how best to ensure noise from one townhouse or apartment is not transmitted to adjacent units.

While building codes establish minimum sound transmission ratings, they are often insufficient to prevent one household from hearing what is happening next door, or upstairs.

Noise separation is not just a question of design; it is also a matter of construction. If walls and pipes are not properly insulated, it is often possible to hear when your neighbour is going to the toilet, let alone playing the piano.

As more and more of us are moving from detached single family houses to duplexes, townhouses or apartments, it is especially important that new multi-family buildings incorporate improved sound separation.

One way to achieve this is by using special drywall products like QuietRock. It offers the acoustic qualities of eight to 10 sheets of drywall. If you move into an older, noisy multi-family unit, you can even install it over an existing wall.

A more challenging problem is reducing noise transmitted between floors and ceilings, especially where hardwood or tile flooring has been installed instead of carpeting.

Strata councils should require that anyone replacing carpet with wood flooring in a concrete building install a layer of cork between the new flooring and existing slab. It costs more, but it can help.

When I moved into a 15th floor downtown apartment with three glass walls in the master bedroom, I was surprised to discover I could reduce outside noise by replacing the glass in the exterior window frames.

The cost was less than I expected, and I was astounded at the difference new glass and seals made.

Finally, I have a message for those people who decide to cut their lawns at 7 o’clock on a Saturday night, just as their neighbour’s guests are arriving for an outdoor dinner party. Please cut the lawn in the afternoon.



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