Excessive noise from neighbours’ alterations

Noise from neighbours’ alterations is becoming ever noisier, and noisier for longer. We need to do something about it. They do not have a right to make us suffer. We should stop putting up with it. There are alternative building methods the builders could perfectly well use. I propose seven solutions.

The old problem

I can’t say what happens in every case, but from my own experience no one ever warns me when a spate of drilling is about to occur, or when the lift is about to be taken over for the delivery of piles of building materials. Many residents in the Barbican may not be troubled with this at all. If they go to work early and come back late, they won’t even hear any drilling, because it’s confined to daylight hours. But for the many people who are retired, or don’t go to work, or work at home, it’s a major issue to have the sound of drilling and thumping in your ears for hours on end, especially when no warning is given.

It’s not at all difficult for the builder to figure out when and where he’s going to start drilling and thumping, and to let nearby flat owners know. Building work isn’t all drilling and thumping; there’s a lot of sawing and screwing, and probably a lot of brewing as well. The time for drilling doesn’t appear suddenly, unexpectedly, it’s part of a planned sequence of building works. The only reason builders can do as they want – as long as they keep to the permitted hours for drilling – and treat us as if we don’t exist is that there is nothing we can do about it except curse silently. Or noisily if we want, because no one can hear our screams above the drilling noise.

The same with lifts. I can trudge up and down stairs if I have to, but there are older people or infirm people in our blocks who can’t. They might need to get away to a medical appointment, be picked up by a car they have booked, or just want to buy some milk, but it’s made difficult for them  – in a block which is theirs, not the builders’.

I would be accepting this as just part of life, if it wasn’t for the fact that the whole problem seems to be on the verge of exploding into a much larger problem, and it is this.

The new much larger problem

The downside of our flats having gone up so much in value is that buyers are now willing to throw a great deal more money than they would have done in the past at refurbishing and improving their new flats. In the past I have heard of a flat with leather floors, and flats with furry walls, but the new fad is altogether more dangerous. It involves installing suspended ceilings, and also in some cases channelling into the concrete of walls to hide cables, which run down to new power sockets. The fixings for the new ceiling and the channelling of long gouges in the walls both require drilling and jack hammering into the concrete to a degree never before encountered for the traditional change of kitchen and bathroom layout. It means that the suffering of neighbours, both in terms of the volume of the noise and its duration, increases exponentially.

The noise is indescribable. The operatives themselves have to wear special headphones to avoid damage to their hearing, so you can imagine what it’s like for the resident on the other side of the wall. Fellow residents of mine in Defoe House suffered weeks of endless drilling like this.

“Surely people are entitled to alter their flats?”

An argument put to me is: “Surely people are entitled to alter their flats?” This is usually delivered in a wounded-sounding tone of voice which also implies, “Surely you are not denying people their basic human rights” or “Surely you’re not suggesting they have to sit silently in their original Barbican flat and never change a lightbulb.” Well, of course I’m not suggesting that. All I’m saying is that there is a limit. In basic, human, civilised terms, there is a limit.

I am not just talking about a legal limit. There certainly are limits imposed by the lease, listed building law, building regulations, the licence for alterations from the Barbican Estate Office, the BEO’s Home Alterations Handbook, environmental law, etc. Assume all those requirements have been met, then yes, the flat owners are entitled by law to do what they want. That means you can’t get an ASBO against them. But it doesn’t mean it’s okay.

There are social, civilized, neighbourly limits on what anyone should expect to get away with and not be shunned by their neighbours and community. In our context, that means not inflicting unreasonable amounts of noise, vibration and distress on neighbouring flat owners.

Some of the people who do building works in the Barbican Estate are the neighbours from hell … PLEASE STOP RIGHT THERE. No, please, sit down again. I know you’re just about to leave this page, because I’ve clearly gone right over the top. Please just give me a further minute or two to win you back.

The neighbours from hell

If your neighbours started putting their food bags out on a Friday afternoon, so they wouldn’t get collected till Monday, or if your neighbours always left the kids’ bicycles in front of the lift door, I think you’d get pretty angry pretty quickly. And if they wouldn’t do anything about it, you’d soon be complaining to your friends about having an antisocial neighbour – the neighbour from hell.

Just for a moment, compare those infringements of common decency and civilised behaviour with the selfishness involved in having someone jackhammering your wall all day. The two things are in a completely different ballpark. (Yes, I do mean the jackhammering is the bad ballpark.) And yet even a resident with her hands over her ears, sitting on a chair which is slowly being vibrated across the carpet, still says to herself: “Oh, I can’t complain, because they have a perfect right to alter the flat.” They don’t. They have a legal right – there’s nothing the courts can do about it if they comply with all the various requirements of building regulations etc – but they don’t have a “welcome to the Barbican as my neighbour” right. They have no right to put you through hell, and then turn up on the move-in date and invite you round for a glass of sherry, at which point you’re expected to forget everything that happened.

There is a middle way

There is a middle way. They don’t have to do the most earth-shattering, ear-splitting, works to their new flat. They’re not Roman emperors. They can perfectly well take into account the suffering they are going to impose on their neighbours, and do more proportionate works. Secondly, there is absolutely no reason why they shouldn’t – and certainly make sure that their builders do – contact you and discuss the works and give you reasonable warning when any particularly noisy ones are about to happen. I wouldn’t mind so much if I knew that I should plan to go to the library the following afternoon. But just when I get a phone call from my aged aunt in France, I don’t want her to be unexpectedly drowned out by some perfectly foreseeable bout of horrible drilling.

Making us suffer is not okay.

What we can do about it

There are a lot of things we can communally do about the problem, to prevent the worst of it, and to prevent it most of the time.

1. Beefing up the ‘Home Improvements Pack’. The Barbican Estate Office, and various resident groups/committees are negotiating a new ‘Home Improvements Pack’. This is the booklet given to every flat owner who applies for permission to do works, and it tells them and their contractors what they can do, and how they must do it, and what they can’t do. This is a once-in-a-generation change and it’s our big chance to get as much in it as we can to prevent these noise problems.

2. Refusal of listed building consent. We can try to persuade the City planners not to permit the more invasive works to the walls and ceiling of the buildings – channelling out the concrete, for example –because this is a listed building. Channelling into walls is irreversible damage.

3. Refusal of consent by the BEO. We should seek to persuade the Barbican Estate Office to refuse consent to invasive works which involve channelling the concrete. They are entitled – indeed obliged – to protect the structure of the buildings. The concrete structure is held together by ‘rebars’, which are metal strips under tension. If people are allowed to indiscriminately channel into walls, they risk damaging the framework of rebars, which means damaging the building in a structural and irreversible way. It’s like breaking springs in your bed or sofa. Once it’s happened you can’t sleep in your bed or sit comfortably on your sofa and you have to buy new ones. Our buildings we can’t change. We just can’t risk damaging the framework.

4. Noise abatement legislation. We should get the City to take action against noisy neighbours under the noise abatement legislation. Again, we all tend to apply a double standard about this. We treat even the most tormenting noise as the inalienable right of the person next door to carry out alterations. But if someone constantly had noisy parties, you would probably in the end – or even quite quickly – go to the noise officers at the City and insist they come round with measuring equipment and take action to stop the noise. But we sit through hours of teeth-grinding drilling noise as if we were Stoic philosophers, not even measuring the noise level.

5. Social pressure. We ought to let people know what they are unleashing on us. Maybe some people are just incredibly thoughtless. Maybe they have some idea in their heads that internal alterations don’t cause any noise outside the flat. Maybe the builders told them that everything is okay and normal. But we can be on the lookout for listed building applications which clearly involve really invasive works and excessive noise and then ring the person up and say, “Look, do you really understand what you can be doing to me for the next six weeks or months.” And when they insist that they will carry on, you can make it very clear that they needn’t knock on your door offering to have you round for that glass of sherry when they move in. If they want to live in harmony with their neighbours, they should start right away.

6. Pre-empting the builders. It is soon clear when a flat has been sold. It’s a month or two before the details appear on the Land Register, but it is nearly always common knowledge. I don’t see what would be wrong with the Barbican Association sending every new buyer a “Please don’t do excessively noisy works” letter. It can be friendly; it doesn’t have to make the Barbican come over like Switzerland.

7. Action against builders. I think that most people who buy in the Barbican don’t have a clear idea in their heads about what works they will do until they talk to some builders. Yes, they probably know they want to have a new kitchen with shelf doors that actually slide, and a bathroom shower they don’t have to hold in one hand. But they won’t be coming up with ideas about dropped ceilings or hidden channeling for cables for new 13 amp plug sockets. They probably won’t have noticed up front that there are only enough sockets for a kettle and a Brevel toasted sandwich maker. It is the builder who will be making specific proposals. We should communally disapprove of builders who propose works which are clearly causing excessive noise, and who regularly cause excessive noise in the way they carry works out. If they are going to persist in promoting works which create misery, let’s not use them for our own refurbishments, let’s discourage our buyers from using them, let’s discourage the estate agents from recommending them – until they start acting in a communally responsible way themselves.


Those are my thoughts on the problem. Sorry to go on at such length.

6 thoughts on “Excessive noise from neighbours’ alterations

  1. Dr J M Pollen

    Last year, from March to October, I had to endure the same excessive noise problem as experienced in Defoe House. The noise from the jackhammers in the flat above mine was unbelievable and often commenced at 08.15 hrs continuing for much of the day. I contacted a firm of sound engineers and was advised to measure the decibels. This registered between 95 to 99 decibels. Permissible exposure time for 94 decibels is 1 hour decreasing to 15 minutes for 100 decibels. While the contractors no doubt had industrial headphones, not even a Bose Quiet 2 headphone was able to have any appreciable diminution of the noise. I conveyed these results to the engineer who advised me to contact the Environmental Health Agency as well as the BEO. The BEO also suggested I contact the EHA. However, having telephoned this agency it was 2-3 weeks before I received a recorded message on my phone saying this was a problem for the BEO. It seems no one was prepared to take any responsibility for dealing with the problem, which I find disgraceful and hazardous.

    The BEO, in reply to my problem with this excessive noise was that this was to be expected as a result of ‘communal living’.

    The contractors involved also ignored hours of working and other aspects of the “Guidelines”. I am surprised if Listed Building Consent was apparently given to the project in the flat above mine in view of the channelling in the walls, which could damage the concrete structure. (See Section 11 of the application form for listed building consent). Of course, it would be no surprise if the City of London Planning Dept was not consulted at all.

    The new guidelines, because they are only ‘guidelines’ offers no hope to unfortunate residents.

    The law does state that a ‘tenant’ is entitled to the ‘quiet enjoyment of his/her flat’, but apparently not in the Barbican.

    Reply
    1. Gill Thomas

      I too tried industrial headphones, contacting EHA and BEO without success.

      I too was told by my House Officer ‘what do you expect when you have chosen communal living’. I chose to live in a community which is on the whole respects and supports its fellow neighbours. I chose to live in a community where there are House Offices employed to support and represent current residents interests rather than those of commercial contractors or absent future owners.

      I am surprised that contractors who promote themselves as ‘Barbican specialists’ and are well aware of the community rules choose to continually break them and continue to get permission to work across the estate.

      I’m at a loss to know why we have rules at all (current or new) if there are no consequences of breaking them on a daily basis, week after week, month after month, project after project.

      The continual rule breaking and communications to BEO results in the residents being seen as an irritation or time wasters to BEO rather than a reason to take action and against offending contractors.

      This also extends to the damage they cause to common areas during a project which they simply walk away from to start their next project. Leaving BEO to fix damage at the expense of residents across the estate. Some of the damage caused cannot be fixed even if our service charge is made available to pay for it.

      Reply
      1. Lesley Moreton

        I too had a very disappointing experience with the BEO. A few years ago new owners moved into the flat above me in Lauderdale Tower and proceeded to take it back to a shell and then lay a resin floor (5mm thick) throughout.

        While the extenstive refurbishment work was being done the builders did not follow the rules, consistently doing noisy week outside of the permitted houses, including weekends. The BEO office did not seem to want to do anything about it and made me feel like I was the problem. The contractors just sent me flowers and carried on in the same way, as no doubt they were on a tight schedule to complete the work. I complained endless time to the BEO but got nowhere. The work went on for months.

        But unfortuntaley to problems did not stop once the work was finished. The poured resin floor acted like drum and we could hear every small noise as the family above (with 2 small children) got on with their lives in their new minimalist flat. I complained many time to the BEO, and eventually got in someone from environmental health and kept a noise record for over a year. This all went on for around two year. During which time the BEO made me feel like I was the nuisance. Eventually, after endless persistence on my part, the BEO served a legal notice on the above neighbours under their lease to require them to carpet. Things did improve after that, although my suspicion is that they have not carpeted wall to wall as required but have put down rugs. But I have no energy left to pursue it further.

        The whole incident which went on for over 2 years has tainted my view of living in the Barbican and in particular the BEO. This is a great shame as I have lived here in various flares for over 20 years.

        Reply
  2. Richard Godber

    The most excruciating noise comes from chasing out channels into the plaster and the concrete. In 70 Defoe this was done extensively by Thomson Bros presumably to provide a route for cables from the newly installed suspended ceilings down to the sockets at floor level.
    I have heard opinions that such chasing out is not allowed by the Landlord but but I have been unable to confirm this.
    Does anyone know for sure ?
    Disregard for the rules seems to be common so perhaps there is no gain from finding out, but I am curious.

    Reply
  3. Alan

    1. The noise problem does not apply to all the walls, of course. The internal divider walls in Defoe House, for example, are just plaster and board, and you can cut into them very quickly.
    2. Where that’s not possible, I’ve found that white plastic conduit is very innocuous. The most annoying thing about it is if it forces you to position your furniture 18mm offsett from the wall, but that’s not the end of the world.
    3. I remember that when you sell a property, you are required to say if there is any dispute attached to it. So if you raise a legal dispute over the nuisance and damage caused by your neighbour’s renovations, by sending a solicitors letter which is tracked on delivery, they are then bound to disclose this fact on resale. (Non-disclosure would lay them open to litigation by their new buyer). This then becomes a factor which complicates the sale, and may even encourage the buyer to seek a lower price.
    So doing this strikes at the heart of the problem: the desire to make money out of capital growth via property improvement, and screw the neighbours. Raising that one letter, could put into doubt the amount of increase in the property value gained by these extreme (and perhaps unnecessary) renovations.
    BTW, the same problem occurs in Kensington and Belgravia, where house owners seek to excavate double or triple depth basements containg a gym, pool, cinema and parking, thus subjecting their neighbours to 18 months of torment and worse.

    Reply
  4. Stuart MacKenzie and Janet Porter

    We completely agree with the comments made in the recently delivered circular re Excessive noise is a threat to all of us. We have endured a considerable number of weeks of highly disruptive noise from flat refurbishments over the years.

    Recently, it has been 25 weeks in 2014 (flat immediately above us); 18 weeks in 2015 (flat three floors below us); 10 weeks (flat six floors above us); compounded by other very noisy maintenance work by CoL staff/ contractors eg. refurbishing the concrete slabs on the balconies. In all cases, the noisy works were supposed to take three or four weeks. Also, the residents had either moved out or were out all day when the work was done. The excessive noise is mainly due to the new desire for a complete refurbishment of flats, including putting in false ceilings. It has been hard to plan one’s day and homeworking as It has been almost impossible to get accurate information about the timing of the worst activity from the contractors.
    The other inconvenience has been the use of our lifts by the contractors over such long periods of time, causing delays in being able to get a lift during the day and creating mess.

    We do think it is high time much tougher restrictions and penalties should be incorporated in the “Home Improvements Pack” to prevent the worst excesses of noise and disruption, and the potential damage to the infrastructure of our buildings, which we the residents have to pay for. The Estate Office and contractors must be told in no uncertain terms that our Barbican flats are our home, and sometimes our workplace. We pay high service charges, and deserve to be treated and protected much better than under the current rules. We are not Nimbys, and we do appreciate there is going to be noise from living in the City. However, we do expect to be protected by rules that should respect our mutual communal living situation.

    We therefore fully support putting pressure on the BEO to change the rules in favour of considerate residents, not selfish ones and indifferent contractors.

    Reply

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