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A multi-story apartment building at night with fully lit, modern-style interiors visible through large windows. Multiple rooms including living areas, bedrooms, and balconies are seen.

The Canadian Building Code and Noise in Multi-Family Buildings

A ceiling under construction with exposed insulation, electrical wiring, and metal framing. An industrial light hangs from one section, illuminating the work area.

Troubled condo-owners often ask me “does the noise I can hear in my apartment exceed the limits allowed under the Building Code?”

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Before I answer this question, it is important for the reader to first understand that the intention of the National Building Code of Canada (which is the model for all provincial codes) is to provide the minimum provisions acceptable to maintain the safety of buildings. There is little to no risk of immediate injury or death resulting from the experience of noise in a building. As such, the acoustic requirements of the Building Code are much less onerous than those related to the structural, mechanical and electrical integrity of a building.

The NBCC does not provide any requirement to control the level of noise in buildings. Instead, it provides a minimum specification for the separating partitions ability to block sound transmission between dwellings. The general public typically calls this soundproofing. Acoustic engineers call it airborne sound insulation.  By specifying a minimum sound insulation standard, the Building Code helps to control “airborne” noise transmission between suites. Noise sources that are airborne in nature include human voices, babies crying, dogs barking, televisions and audio systems.

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It is important for condo owners to be aware that by building a separating wall or floor that meets the Building Code minimum requirement, the developer has not necessarily provided a “good” or “high” level of sound insulation between dwellings. Consequently, the level of sound insulation experienced by owners may not be commensurate with their expectations, especially if they bought their condominiums in the belief that they were buying into a high-end or luxury development. Neither will building a separating wall or floor that meets the Building Code minimum requirement protect an owner from noise transmission resulting from a floor layout that positions a noisy room of one suite (i.e. living room) next to a quiet room of the adjacent suite (bedroom).

The Building Code relates only to the control of airborne sound transmission. However, noise disturbance can also be experienced through the process of “structure-borne” noise transmission. This occurs where the fabric of the building is struck by an impact, such as a plate dropped on hardwood floor or furniture dragged across a floor, or where mechanical or electrical equipment such as pumps, air-handling equipment, transformers or elevators impart continuous vibration into the structure.

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The Building Code contains no provision for controlling structure-borne noise. It does, however, recommend a minimum level of impact sound insulation for the floor assembly. Complying with this recommendation will help reduce structure-borne noise transmission from footsteps, dropped objects and dragged furniture, but will do little to reduce the impact of building services equipment. Although these issues are not addressed by the Building Code, noise control measures can be included during the design phase of the development. However, many developers do not address these issues quite simply because there is no regulative requirement to do so.
Having said this, some developers do go the extra mile by specifying that noisy equipment be vibration isolated, and by selecting separating partition assemblies in excess of the Building Code requirement, particularly where the condominiums are marketed as “high-end” or “luxury”. BAP Acoustics has worked with clients seeking to provide a higher quality product in terms of the level of sound insulation achieved between suites. We have worked with other clients to develop uprated separating floor assemblies designed to provide a high standard of impact sound insulation, although there is no requirement to do so under the Building Code.
Before buying an apartment, do your homework and evaluate your expectations. Do you want the apartment to just look nice, or do you want it sound just as good as it looks? Ask your realtor or developer about the acoustic design standard of the building and confirm that they go beyond minimum requirements.

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