by Josh Jonsson, CSI
In recent years, demand has increased for better floor/ceiling acoustics in multifamily construction. This has been driven by consumer desires, new guidelines from code bodies, and stricter enforcement of existing codes. How do design professionals keep pace as the traditional approaches to multi-unit residential sound control evolve?
This article reviews important new guidelines that must be taken into account by architects and specifiers, and examines how construction manufacturers have created new products or enhanced existing ones in the pursuit of achieving higher acoustical performance.
Two of the principal measurement standards for acoustics in multifamily construction are:
- sound transmission class (STC), which pertains to the amount of airborne sound contained by a given building element (i.e. walls, doors, windows, and floor/ceilings); and
- impact insulation class (IIC), which deals with impact noise (i.e. footfall, chair scrapes, and dropped objects) transmitted through a floor/ceiling system.
Both these single-number ratings apply to the full assembly of building materials used to separate tenants, including floor/ceiling assemblies.
For more than 50 years, these measurements have helped architectural project design teams quantify the acoustic levels of floor/ceiling assemblies. In fact, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) wrote A Guide to Airborne, Impact, and Structure Borne Noise: Control in Multifamily Dwellings in 1967, helping reinforce the importance of sound control in multifamily construction. This document, along with the Uniform Building Code (UBC), helped project teams recognize an acoustical threshold was needed in multifamily construction. UBC required an STC and IIC rating of 50 (or 45 if field-tested as F-STC or F-IIC). The higher the rating, the better the performance. (See “Sound Testing Practices.”)
In 1997, UBC gave way to the International Building Code (IBC) as the widely accepted model code. This shift brought greater awareness of acoustical ratings and their deemed thresholds in unit-over-unit construction, however these code levels remained aligned with the UBC’s established minimum requirements of STC and IIC 50 (or 45 if field-tested).
As the multifamily industry became more competitive, developers began offering upgrades in flooring and lighting to tenants as an amenity, yet little to no attention was paid to acoustical performance. This is astounding when one considers acoustics continue to be one of the driving factors in maintaining low vacancy levels, as well as one of the most litigated issues in this type of construction. To compound the subject, many of the amenity upgrades offered, such as hard-surfaced finished floors and canister lighting, can adversely impact a floor/ceiling assembly’s performance.
Updating acoustical recommendations
In response to the need for updated acoustical guidelines, the International Code Council (ICC), along with several respected acoustical experts, created ICC G2-2010, Guideline for Acoustics. The guideline recognizes:
the current level and approach of sound isolation requirements in the building code needs to be upgraded. The requirements are currently insufficient to meet occupant needs.
As shown in Figure 1, the guide provides two levels of acoustical performance: ‘acceptable’ and ‘preferred.’ Both exceed code minimums for airborne and structure-borne noise.
These new levels now give a clearer direction on what levels should be targeted for desired acoustical performance, depending on the building type. As the names suggest, when one wants a building that has an acceptable level of acoustical separation, ‘acceptable’ is targeted. When one is designing a building on the higher end of market rate or luxury level, or has tenants or owners sensitive to noise, the desire should be for a ‘preferred’ level of performance.
Components of acoustical design
How do these new recommendations apply to the current approach for multifamily construction? As Figure 2 shows, a commonly specified design for many multifamily projects, which is also recommended by acoustical consultants, includes:
- hard-surfaced flooring;
- 25 mm (1 in.) or more of gypsum concrete;
- 6.4-mm (¼-in.) entangled mesh sound mat;
- wood subfloor;
- wood floor trusses or joists;
- resilient channel; and
- one layer of gypsum board.
The typical rating for the design would be an IIC 51 to 55 and STC 56 to 60, depending on the floorcovering (e.g. laminate, tile, floating engineered wood), the acoustical performance of which would be listed by the consultant and verified by test reports. These numbers exceed code minimum and exceed the STC requirement for ‘acceptable,’ but only marginally—at best—meet an ‘acceptable’ level for IIC and any nuisance impact noises from upstairs tenants (IIC).
It is important to keep in mind these listed ratings would be achieved by selecting and installing all the components based on proper acoustical design. For example, the resilient channel would need to be a product similar to a proprietary one using steel measuring 0.5 mm (0.021 in.) thick by 38 mm (1.5 in.) wide, as opposed to a similar but lesser design lacking proper acoustical performance. To increase the IIC rating, an upgrade to the sound mat and/or the resilient ceiling system must be made.
Improving IIC ratings with sound mats
Traditional sound control mats with entangled mesh enhance IIC performance through the mesh being attached to fabric, which is loose-laid over the subfloor and then encapsulated with a gypsum concrete topping. The entangled mesh acts as a spring and produces an air space with little surface contact (i.e. three to five percent). Until recently, IIC performance was upgraded by using a thicker sound mat and deeper gypsum concrete.
Sound mat manufacturers have added new technology that allows for higher ratings while continuing to meet industry expectations for the corresponding thickness of the gypsum concrete. Traditional entangled mesh mats are now being manufactured with an additional acoustical fabric—Figure 3 depicts a 6.4-mm (¼-in.) entangled mesh mat with this upgrade. The acoustical fabric is laminated to the underside of the mat, creating an additional vibration break and absorptive layer. This improved product requires the same thickness of gypsum concrete as its standard counterpart. The IIC performance of the system is improved by two to five points without adding any measurable thickness to the floor system.
Another option is to employ the original 6.4-mm entangled mesh sound mat and a secondary topical mat placed between the gypsum concrete and the finished floor. If this option is selected, this secondary mat should be high-quality and thoroughly tested for sound ratings. (The sound test showing this type of product’s performance must be specific to the assembly that is being used versus a sound test from an unrelated design—for example, using concrete test data for a 2×10 joist system.)
Improving IIC ratings with resilient clips and channels
Properly installed, high-quality resilient channel will improve IIC ratings, but the resilient channel’s effectiveness can be easily lessened through faulty installation. To install traditional resilient channel, proper-length screws are imperative so as not to penetrate the joist or remove the channel’s resiliency.
Penetrations from the drywall into the joist through the resilient channel create flanking paths that transfer sound through a floor/ceiling assembly, as does having a channel affixed tightly to the assembly. For these reasons, new resilient clips that are difficult to install improperly have been introduced to the market. These clips can deliver equivalent performance to properly installed, high-quality resilient channel.
Hanging systems that provide spring and reduce or eliminate resilient channel contact with the joist offer even better performance. Figure 4 shows two such products: the ceiling wave hanger and a spring isolator. Either of these products installed in conjunction with a 6.4-mm (¼-in.) entangled mesh sound mat on the floor above would help the system exceed the ‘acceptable’ level, and approach ‘preferred’ levels for the IIC rating with hard-surfaced floorcovering. See Figure 5 for various assemblies and their acoustics attributes.
How to design for desired acoustical performance
As a specifier or architect team leader, one must first determine the level of acoustic performance to which to design. This should not be a matter of just meeting code—rather, the entire conversation must be approached in a new light. The following questions should be asked:
- When considering the amenities offered to tenants, how important are the acoustics of the unit? In other words, how important is the quality of life related to acoustical privacy?
- Does the project team want to just meet code because complaints and vacancy rates are unimportant or not a factor? Do they want ‘acceptable’ performance, significantly reducing noise complaints and removing sound control from the vacancy equation? Or, do they want ‘preferred’ performance to meet client expectation and greatly reduce potential for noise complaints?
- Once the level is determined, which method makes the most sense for achieving that performance level? Does the sound mat get upgraded to a very high-performing mat (manufacturers offer many styles with differing performances)? Does the sound mat get upgraded while keeping the system as thin as possible? Does the sound mat stay the same and the ceiling hanger system get upgraded? Is a secondary sound mat added while upgrading the primary sound mat and/or ceiling system to reach optimal sound ratings? Or, do the mat and ceiling get upgraded to reach better ratings?
Even after the desired level of performance has been determined, there are other factors that should be considered, such as whether the project will always be apartments or if they could become condominiums. There is also the matter of whether carpet and pad areas will always have carpet and pad.
Projects that start as apartments and then plan on being converted into condominiums should be approached as if they were condominiums from the beginning. Future owners may tear out carpet and replace it with hard-surfaced flooring.
Sound mat manufacturers receive a high volume of phone calls every year where a condominium project put sound mat only in the hard-surfaced areas. The new owners want hard surfaced flooring throughout and are being told they need to provide levels of performance similar to the ‘preferred’ levels while only being able to add a thin amount to the profile of the floor. As they can only do work in their unit, they are left trying to use a thin, lower-performing sound mat to reach the requested, more stringent criterion.
Throughout the United States, the wood-frame multifamily industry is paying increasing attention to the acoustics of the floor/ceiling assembly. Innovative architectural acoustic products continue to see greater use in existing metropolitan areas as well as in new areas of the country. It is important specifiers continue to be educated on new products and adapt their specifications to ensure they meet defined levels of sound control that tie directly to the end user’s satisfaction with their living space.
Josh Jonsson, CSI, is an acoustical specialist and West regional manager at Maxxon Corporation. He has more than 15 years of experience in the architectural noise industry and has worked for acoustical and vibration consulting agencies. Jonsson is a member of CSI, Acoustical Society of America (ASA), and ASTM International committee E33 Building and Environmental Acoustics. He can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com.