Protests against noise in a building in Madrid, in a file image.David Exposito
Change windows or change houses. That is the dilemma facing Julia Sánchez, a neighbor in the center of Madrid. Sánchez, 37, lives for rent in an apartment that overlooks one of the squares in the Chueca neighborhood, whose bustle never bothered him. “I liked the bustle, to see that there is life …”, he remembers. The pandemic that changed the world as we knew it also changed something inside: “With the confinement, all of a sudden, it was super silent; you start to assess what noise pollution is, you identify it and it bothers you ”, he explains. “I think the neighbors have become more sensitive to value peace, rest.”
The latest official statistics seem to agree with him. According to the Living Conditions Survey, whose data for 2020 were known in July, one in every five homes in Spain suffers from noise problems. The percentage of people who responded having noise disturbances produced by their neighbors or from the street, 22.1%, jumped almost eight points compared to the previous year (14.2% in 2019, the minimum since 2004). Esteban Benito, president of the Chueca Neighborhood Association, also believes that the confinement has been decisive. Or more exactly the lack of refinement, when “many people” like Julia Sánchez have approached the organization. “We are discovering a greater awareness of the people about noise without a doubt,” says the neighborhood leader.
The difference between living in a house with or without noise is explained by situations that seem anecdotal. Sánchez, for example, remembers the days last summer when he could still sleep with the windows open and without using earplugs or turning on the air conditioning. But the health consequences of noise are serious. Pedro Cobo, doctor in Physical Sciences and researcher at the CSIC, points out two broadly: the auditory and non-auditory effects. These seconds, which range from sleep problems to stress or anxiety, are the ones that can occur most commonly in the home environment.
They are desperate situations, in which many citizens feel helpless. Despite having the law on his side. “The legislation protects us from the annoyance at night, it is harmonized with Europe and it is good,” says Cobo, “the real problem is the Administrations that do not apply all this correctly and, when faced with situations in which they know that noise is exceeded, they do nothing or delay decisions ”. That and a social permissiveness that does not occur in other countries. Cobo likes to remember that “Spain has the same legislation as Innsbruck”, the Austrian city where some year it has proven that summer nights can be very quiet. Reporting involves taking measurements at home that prove that the allowed decibel volume is exceeded. “To solve these types of problems is the Municipal Police,” he sums up.
Increase in complaints
The data provided by the Madrid Municipal Police show that 2020 was a complicated year in the fight against noise. Just when we spent more hours at home, noise complaints went from 5,002 in 2019 to 8,701 in 2020. And although the noise measurement records fell (from 883 to 655), the number of those that were positive (376 cases in the that the agents verified that some activity exceeded the legal noise limits) progressed very slightly. The big jump with respect to the year before the pandemic occurs precisely in the section of annoying noises between neighbors, with 20 measurements and 40 positive reports more than a year before.
Are our houses prepared for noise? Atteneri Viñas, acoustic engineer at the insulating materials firm Ursa, answers bluntly: “Not at all.” The latest building code “gives a little more importance to the matter”, but much remains to be done. “I suffer it myself,” says the engineer, “I live for rent in an old apartment and it is impossible not to hear noises when what we have is a simple brick without insulation.”
The only alternative in these cases is to intervene on a house that, in its original construction, was not prepared to isolate the noise well. The concept used in construction jargon is uncouple. “It’s like making a box within another box,” exemplifies the engineer. Floating floors, false ceilings and plasterboard on the walls, with a layer of mineral wool or other insulating material, help not to hear or be heard by the neighbors. An installer points out that the simplest systems cost from 25 euros per square meter.
To avoid street noise, a complete facade insulation requires a more complex intervention, since it usually involves the entire community. But Viñas points out that there are other simpler solutions that usually work. “The intervention can be a simple change of windows, which are a weak point in almost all buildings”, explains the acoustic engineer. Julia Sánchez, the neighbor from Chueca, is trying to agree with her landlord to put up double windows. If this is not achieved, he assures, he will look for another floor and it is not the only one in his building. “I think many of us are considering leaving,” he says with a tone of resignation, “as much as we like the center, in the end this affects your life.”