Launch Slideshow

On Site with a Soundproofing Crew

On Site with a Soundproofing Crew

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    The objective: Prevent unwanted sound from entering the apartment from the unit next door through the shared party wall in the stairwell. The crew starts by protecting the existing finished wood stair treads with cardboard, paper, and tape, then proceeds to remove the drywall from the party wall.

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    Soundproofing an existing stairwell involves some special constraints. Removing the skirt board for the stair treads is beyond the scope of this job. So the crew has to leave the skirt board, and the drywall behind it, in place — where it will continue to transmit vibrations through the wall. It’s important to inform clients that some sound may still be heard through this solid point of contact with the neighboring unit. This wall could have been soundproofed more effectively, and far less expensively, had the work been done during the original construction instead of as a retrofit, says contractor Joseph Drago.

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    The crew trims drywall flush with the stair skirt board using a battery-operated recip saw.

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    Working carefully to avoid damaging an existing water pipe in the wall, the crew removes low-density, open-cell, spray-applied polyurethane insulation from the existing party wall. Open-cell foam transmits sound less readily than high-density closed-cell spray foam, but rock wool fiber performs better than either, so this wall will be re-insulated with special sound-absorbing rock wool.

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    The existing low-density polyurethane foam insulation can be readily pulled out by hand. The crew puts it in plastic bags and takes it out to a dumpster.

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    After re-insulating the wall with rock wool fiber, the crew applies sound-blocking mass-loaded sheet vinyl (Sound Barrier HD) to the studs. Intentionally designed to be soft and massive, the vinyl weighs upwards of 120 pounds per roll. It’s a struggle for a three-man crew to maneuver the heavy rolls into position on site and install the material in the tight quarters of an existing stairwell.

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    The crew unrolls the mass-loaded sheet vinyl vertically, working along the wall. Joints are positioned between studs (within the stud bays), so that overlaps won’t create a bulge in the wall when drywall is applied.

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    The low man has to do some heavy lifting, supporting the weight of the roll of sound-deadening sheet vinyl while the men on the staging above position and fasten the material at the top of the wall.

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    The crew fastens the Sound Barrier HD to the wall studs using a coil nailer loaded with one-inch roofing nails.

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    The crew seals joints in the sound-deadening vinyl using a 1/16th-inch tape made of the same material, with a polyvinyl acetate (PVA) adhesive. Sealing the joints is critical to the performance of the system: it prevents sound from bypassing the sound-absorbing material through air gaps between the sheets.

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    The crew measures a drop beam in the ceiling. The sound-deadening material has to be cut to fit any irregularities where the wall meets the ceiling.

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    The sheet vinyl cuts easily with a razor knife. The technique is to score one face of the material with the knife …

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    … then bend it and tear it by hand.

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    Even a cut-down and trimmed piece of the heavy sheet vinyl takes effort to set in place.

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    The crew nails the last piece of vinyl into place. After this, a drywall contractor will come on site to re-apply drywall to the wall.

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    The crew trims the Sound Barrier HD in place with a razor knife. A close fit is important for the material to perform effectively.

Noise is a subjective phenomenon, says Joseph Drago of New England Soundproofing. A long-time general remodeler in the Boston, Massachusetts, market, Drago started to take on soundproofing jobs in the 1990s. He still handles kitchens, baths, room additions, and the like; but he has developed a special niche in the area of soundproofing.

Drago has the sensitive instruments and technical expertise needed to scientifically measure and quantify a noise problem, or its solution. But he says that satisfying customers is a little more nuanced than that. Different people perceive sound differently, he says, so understanding and meeting a client's expectations is a case-by-case personal process. "I've been in houses where the client says, 'There! You hear that?' … and I can't hear anything," he says. "Or for example, you'll meet a husband and wife, and there's a noise that she can't stand that doesn't bother him, or vice versa."

A crew from New England Soundproofing applies a sound-deadening, mass-loaded, sheet vinyl product called <a href="http://www.nesoundproofingstore.com/Sound-Barrier-MLV_c_102.html" target="_blank" xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml">Sound Barrier HD</a> to a party wall separating a condo stairwell from the unit next door. Materials like this vinyl and the special sound-absorbing rock-wool fiber insulation in the wall cavities can be used to absorb, deaden, and muffle sound vibrations from a variety of sources. Solutions are based on the nature of the sound source and the subjective perceptions of building occupants.

A crew from New England Soundproofing applies a sound-deadening, mass-loaded, sheet vinyl product called Sound Barrier HD to a party wall separating a condo stairwell from the unit next door. Materials like this vinyl and the special sound-absorbing rock-wool fiber insulation in the wall cavities can be used to absorb, deaden, and muffle sound vibrations from a variety of sources. Solutions are based on the nature of the sound source and the subjective perceptions of building occupants.

So Drago has to be careful about what he promises for results — especially when the circumstances, or the budget, may not allow him to deploy his full range of sound-deadening materials and methods. Take, for example, the stairwell shown in this week's slideshow. The sound is coming into the stairwell from the condo next door. Drago's plan was to strip off the existing drywall, remove rigid foam insulation, and install softer sound-absorbing rock wool insulation, plus a layer of noise-absorbing mass-loaded vinyl sheets, before putting drywall back up in the stairwell. If there were no stairs, the crew could go a step further, attaching standoff clips and metal channel to isolate the interior wallboard from the studs behind. But that would add thickness to the wall and there's no room to do that in this situation without demolishing and rebuilding the stairs — which, understandably, is not in the budget.

The chosen solution will go a long way to resolving the issue, Drago says. It may fall short of perfect silence; but, he says, in most cases clients are satisfied that they're getting what they paid for — as long as he's careful to explain in advance.

But Drago says that when the situation is right, he's often able to meet even the most ambitious project goals. He cites the example of a suburban client who wanted a sound-proofed "man cave" on the attic level of a home — a place where he could watch movies and listen to music on his beefy surround-sound system without disturbing his wife and daughters in their rooms on the floor below. Drago decoupled the entire attic space from the house below with a new framing system, isolated from the existing house using synthetic buffer materials. After the client moved in, he invited Drago over to see the results. "We were in the room downstairs, and you couldn't hear a sound from up above," Drago recalls. "When we went upstairs and opened the door, he had the system cranked. It was pounding."

The smiles said it all, says Drago.