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.