Flawed strata thinking in hard flooring


There are many good reasons for installing timber or tiled floors in apartments – and just as many reasons why your neighbours won’t want you to do it.

A timber floor can add character and soften the visual aesthetics, especially in a shiny new apartment block. Tiles are hard-wearing and easy to clean, a plus for families and rentals.

But hard floors come with a raft of potential points of conflict between you, your neighbours and your strata committee.

NSW strata laws include a clause in the “minor renovations” section that says hard floors can be installed with the permission of the owners corporation or committee, which may not be unreasonably refused.

But if you have an older apartment which was designed and built with carpet and underlay on top of timber floors, simply removing the carpet and polishing the floorboards will almost certainly create a noise problem for the people downstairs.

The same applies to a slightly less extent to concrete floors.  If you remove the most effective form of sound insulation – good carpet on top of quality underlay – and replace it with something that’s certain to be less effective, you are entering a world of potential acoustic strife.

This is exacerbated by the cheap flooring alternatives on the market and the advice you get from some salespeople which can range from wilfully irresponsible to well-intentioned ignorance.

I recall one flooring salesman offering underlay that was 3mm green plastic which he said was the latest technology and as good as you’d get anywhere. “Anyway,” he said, “The body corporate can’t do anything once the floor is down.”

That would be a “no sale” right there.  We went with 11mm Regupol, as demanded in our flooring by-laws.

There are three basic elements in the creation of noise through flooring.  The floor covering, the construction of the floor and the behaviour of the people in the flat.

Part of the problem is that Building Code of Australia standards for apartments were set at a time when apartments were not considered as a serious option for long-term residence. That was also a time when covering bare flooring with carpet was seen as aspirational – if you could afford to do so, you did it.

When fashions changed and timber and tiles were seen as more practical or aesthetically pleasing options, BCA standards were simply inadequate, but there would have been resistance from developers to increase them because of the cost involved.

The upshot is, if your apartment floor has been built to minimum National Construction Code (formerly BCA) tolerances, and you put down cheap flooring with negligible underlay, you are going to get complaints.

If you or your tenants stomp around or play music at stadium volumes, there is very likely to be trouble. But just walking round in hard shoes can create a noise nuisance below if the insulation is inadequate.

Worst case, your strata committee or neighbours could go to a state tribunal and seek orders compelling you to rip up the floor or re-install carpet.

Getting back to strata law, what would be an unreasonable refusal?  Unfortunately, many strata committees go by the NCC standards for permitted noise transfer which are 62db of impact noise and 50db of airborne noise.

These levels are woefully inadequate for the way we live now and barely meet the very lowest standards calculated by the Association of Australasian Acoustical Consultants (AAAC).

A smart owners corporation will use those AAAC standards as the basis for a flooring by-law to avoid any arguments about what is “reasonable”.

But let’s assume you flooring meets basic minimum NCC standards, and it is approved because it might seem unreasonable not to do so.

You install the flooring but your neighbours kick up merry Hell because of the noise. That permission from the committee now means very little.

There is a fundamental rule in strata in most jurisdictions that you or your tenants aren’t allowed to disturb the peaceful enjoyment of their homes by other residents.

While resident owners can limit the noise by their own behaviour, such as not wearing shoes indoors, there’s a limit to controls that landlords can impose on their tenants.

And if them just living normally turns out to create intolerable noise, you could end up in a wearying and expensive legal battle that results in you having to lay down carpet and underlay over your new timber floors or tiles.

You can download the AAAC’s guide for acoustic ratings in apartments and townhouses at aaac.org.au.

A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review

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