Tonight I watched the Austin Music Commission hold their regular monthly meeting, conveniently broadcast live over the internet. When the video is ready, you can see it on Channel 6. One of the items on their agenda was to discuss the “cultural impact of noise in [the] downtown area.”
All of the members in attendance thought it made sense for the City to encourage, or possibly even require, the use of higher performing windows (“thicker windows,” they called them) in downtown buildings that were expected to be exposed to downtown noise, particularly related to music venues. I think this is a good idea (with some qualifiers, read on).
When searching for ways to express their idea in material terms, they got as far as saying that mitigation (“thicker” windows) should be based on the allowable noise of surrounding venues according to the noise ordinance. In most cities, this would be a perfectly sensible thing to say. The problem is Austin’s ordinance is source-oriented rather than receiver-oriented. If you have ever spoken to me about Austin’s ordinance, or read any of my earlier articles, you know that this is my number one complaint about our noise ordinance, and something that sets us apart from most other cities.
The commission was also looking for ideas on ways the venues could meet half-way with the developers. They noted that Don Pitts and the Music Office work regularly with venue owners to lessen noise impacts. By every report, Mr. Pitts does a great a job in communicating with venues and works very hard on finding reasonable solutions, but relying on the Music office is itself not an objective determination of where venues should meet developers, of what the half-way point is.
It turns out it’s very easy to define a half-way point in terms that are completely objective and simple to explain. A half-way point can be defined as a maximum sound level a venue is allowed to cause at a nearby property.
The first step is to rearrange Austin’s noise ordinance with receiver-oriented sound level limits (or to change the permitting system to use receiver-based venue specific levels). Under the current system, a producer of noise is required to maintain a certain sound level at their own property line (source-oriented). This treats all venues as if they’re the same distance from their neighbors. A source-oriented system provides no reward to venue owners who make sensible decisions about their venue’s location, or orientation, or any sound mitigating features they may install to protect their neighbors from excessive noise. Likewise, the source-oriented system is no more restrictive on venues that are set up poorly with respect to noise control. There’s no legal incentive to try to be a good neighbor.
A receiver-oriented noise ordinance specifies the sound level limits you are allowed to create as measured at your neighbor’s property, and according to the type of neighbor you have (i.e residential, commercial, and industrial, where residential would have the most restrictive limits). This system implicitly rewards venue owners who choose their locations carefully and arrange their venues in ways that are conscious about their neighbor’s noise exposure. Noise mitigation measures such as orienting a stage away from a residential building or constructing a noise wall result in effectively higher permitted sound levels inside the venue. This means the person operating the mixer has greater freedom to turn things up if the performance demands it.
On the developer’s side of the equation, the half-way point (in the form of a sound level limit) provides a reference point for buildings to be designed with respect to noise. Knowing what the maximum expected outdoor sound levels are, an architect (or the architect’s acoustical sub-consultant) can specify the appropriate walls, windows, and doors to meet an acceptable indoor noise level. The acceptable indoor level can be set by building code.
Some cities attempt to over-simplify this process by defining a one-size-fits-all minimum window STC. This is a mistake. Interior sound levels due to sound energy transmission through a window depend on the size of the window, the size of the room, and the furnishings inside the room (how absorptive or echoic the room is). Very large windows in rooms with all hard surfaces require higher STC values than small windows in plush rooms to achieve the same indoor sound levels.
Implementing these requirements would create a reward system for developers. When developers are willing to do the work to find sensible building designs, they are rewarded with less expensive ways of protecting the residents of their buildings from noise. The noise arriving at their windows will be a known quantity, so appropriate building elements can be chosen in the design phase. This is much less expensive than lawsuits and retrofits.
Declaring a half-way point in the form of a receiver-oriented noise ordinance that is written with thought and research while requiring developers to meet a maximum interior noise level is the most elegant and fair way to encourage both developers and venue owners to respect one another while providing a framework where everyone can prosper. Both sides can proceed confidently, knowing there’s an objective measure to show that they’re doing their part.
Appropriate sound level limits (both indoor and outdoor) can be established based on consideration of relevant factors, including:
- Sleep disturbance research
- Construction costs research
- A survey of existing sound levels, including consideration of contributing venues
- Comparison to successful noise ordinances from other cities
- Importance of live music in the city’s identity
- Research into sound levels typical Austin residents are willing to endure, as compared to other cities
Building an apartment with huge windows downtown might provide for outstanding views that people are willing to pay a lot of money for, but it’s absolutely not sensible for anyone to expect such an apartment to be quiet at night, unless they’re willing to pay a lot of money for high-STC windows. It’s unfair to expect downtown music venues to turn things down to accommodate such poor design.
Similarly, no sensible person would believe that setting up a roof-top bar with no sound containment across the street from an apartment building will not cause residents of that building to lose sleep. It’s especially distasteful when these types of actions are defended by declaring any complainers haters of live music. This is also unfair.
I think the Music Commission is absolutely on the right track with the discussion they had this evening. I hope to see their ideas fleshed out into thoughtful and meaningful changes in the way our city considers noise.