Surrounded by a wall of sound

As more new homes are built, noise complaints are rising, says Christopher Browne. The answer? Build them better and stronger
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The Independent Online

A partner who snores is one thing. But being woken in the middle of the night by the snorts and snuffles of a noisy neighbour is another. You can talk to your loved one and even try to change their sleeping habits, but getting personal with the people next door or rapping on the wall with a broom-handle can be tricky - especially if you want to stay on good terms.

The same applies to throbbing music, late-night parties, noisy DIY jobs - and high-spirited events like the Rugby World Cup. We don't mind our own sounds, but we are none too partial to the noises of others. The problem, says the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), is we live too close to one another for comfort.

It's hard to credit, but the average house or flat built today is less than half the size of a pre-1920s one - and it has thinner walls, weaker ceilings and poorer sound-proofing, according to a report by the RICS. So the sculpture-shaped speakers and plasma TV that the neighbours are so proud of could cause more nightmares than their snoring - and it's all down to "crowded house syndrome". What's made us such a noisy bunch, then? Builders who use boards instead of wet plaster in party walls, poorer workmanship due to commercial pressures, more HMOs (houses in multiple occupation) with bedrooms next to living-rooms and, of course, those low frequency hi-fi and DVD systems that penetrate the sturdiest of walls, says the RICS.

"We live in a high-speed, soundbite-led society which means that even if your pager's quiet, there are the reverberating sounds of music and the TV or someone in high heels clanking to and fro in the flat above," says RICS spokesman Andrew Smith. Walls certainly have ears and one first-time buyer I know has been put off moving altogether as he says every place he views seems to have hollow ones.

Cramped and cowed we may be, but we live in hope. For a project backed by the House Builders Federation (HBF), the private housebuilders organisation, has urged the Government to issue every new or converted home in England and Wales with a sound warranty. It's already made a difference in Scotland and the final consultation period is over. It is now up to the Government to decide whether the "Robust Standard Details" rule, as it is somewhat strangely titled, should become law on 1 January 2004.

One group that wishes us to live more peacefully is the Association of Noise Consultants. Chairman Rupert Thornely-Taylor says around 70 per cent of homes south of the border have inadequate sound insulation. "We make more noise than we used to and the regulations have lagged behind," he says. Chartered surveyor Simon Cash's nose for noise is equally sharp. "Though you can't impose an anti-social behaviour order on someone who coughs or snores in his own home, he can make his neighbours' lives a misery. In future we might end up adding a premium to the market value of a flat or house that has been sound-tested or complies with new standards."

Stephen Brazier, group operations director of the housebuilders Bovis Homes, believes constructors and developers should fund the changes. "Companies must spend more money on new homes to make them stronger and more robust, particularly as land has become so scarce that homes are not only smaller but also grouped together more densely than before."

There is no doubt that the sounds of music and mayhem have been taxing us since the 1990s - though an environmental law could bring back some hard-won harmony. For if you have a noise problem, you can report it to your local council. Officers will then investigate and, under the 1990 Environmental Protection Act, serve the offenders with an abatement order. If they fail to comply, they face fines of up to £5,000 plus £500-a-day for any further noise. Some recent disputes have even staggered to the high court.

This year more than two-thirds of complaints logged by council health departments have been for home disturbance - more than double those for road-works, pneumatic drills, HGV vehicles and factories. Prompted by these figures, the HBF has run acoustic laboratory tests at Edinburgh's Napier University to see how we can fight this intrusion into our privacy.

Now it believes it has the answer. HBF spokesman Pierre Williams says: "The best way to tackle today's noisy home is to put more effective materials in the walls and floors of all new and converted terraced houses and flats whether they're built on timber- and steel-frames or brick-and-block ones."

So here's hoping. After all, a Scottish-style sound warranty could be the perfect Christmas bonus for today's forgotten plasterers.