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Are postwar buildings from the 1950s and '60s constructed better than ones built later?

Postwar buildings were built with more substantial, sound-dampening materials, however location plays a major role in how quiet a building is.

Austin Havens-Bowen for Brick Underground/Flickr

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Question:

Is it true that postwar buildings constructed in the 1950s through early '60s tend to be better built than later versions, and have less noise transmission through walls and floors? What's the best way to assess how much noise will be audible from neighboring apartments? I'm also concerned about cooking odors and smoke coming through the bathroom and kitchen exhaust vents. How can I evaluate that without living there?

Answer:

There is truth to this idea, our experts say, but there are other factors that contribute to noise and odors circulating in a building.

"It is a fact that postwar buildings were built with more substantial building materials in the 1950s and '60s," says Tiger Koehn, a broker with Bond New York and a soundproofing consultant. "The materials used for prefabricated exterior building plates or external panels were constructed with iron, steel, and cement or crushed cement and sealants. Today, those similar panels are made using Fiberglass, plastic, rubber, steel, and sealants."

And anecdotally, at least, apartment buildings that were constructed in the 1950s seem to make for a more peaceful living situation than ones built later. 

"I live in a 1959 building, and I can attest to the fact that it is very well insulated and built more along the lines of prewar than some successive 1970s buildings," says Deanna Kory, a broker with Corcoran. "That is not to say that there isn’t some noise transmission—that even happens in prewar buildings." 

She attributes the relative quietness of her building to the cinder block walls and thicker flooring used in early postwar construction, which were replaced in later years by different materials. 

Janine Young, a broker with Bond, says she too lived in an early postwar building that seemed to be made of quality materials: "I lived in one building on East 66th that was built in the '50s, and it was pin-drop quiet. Later, I moved to another building on Seventh Avenue that was the noisiest apartment—you could hear the subway from five stories up," she says.

That's not to say that all newer buildings will be comparatively noisier and smellier. Some properties that went up after the 1950s and '60s are also well-insulated, but this is difficult to determine from a visit while apartment-shopping. 

There is also no guarantee that an apartment in an older building will be free of intrusive noise and odors. If the previous owners renovated, for instance, it's possible they removed walls that once provided insulation. 

"That's really hard to discover with just an inspection," says Melissa Leifer, a broker with Keller Williams Tribeca. "You might not know until you live there, so you need a broker who knows the building and will really advocate on your behalf." 

You could also do a bit of sleuthing to find out whether residents of a building you're interested in have had issues with noise and odors. 

"One has only to go to the Hall of Records downtown and look into the enormous amount of lawsuits currently taking place in Manhattan in reference to faulty construction," says Koehn. 

A more simple method of testing whether an apartment is well-insulated, he adds, is to gently hit any part of the wall with your palm: "If the wall is solid, you will not get any movement of the sheet rock or hear a hollow sound when you bang the wall. If a wall is predominantly hollow, you will clearly hear a hollow sound when tapping the wall and you will feel the wall give under the bang you just gave it."

Keep in mind that there are other factors at play in the noisiness of an apartment. All the insulation in the world won't create a peaceful environment if your building is across the street from a hospital or fire department, Young points out. 

If you do find that your apartment is lacking in the insulation department after you move in, there are ways to address this. Check out our guide to soundproofing here. 


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