Shush turns to shove

Tags: dispute, noise, rules, legal


Inner-city residents are finding sound reasons to consider noise around their home.

It doesn’t sound like much: chairs being moved, a much-loved Wiggles DVD, toilets being flushed. There were no wild parties, no dogs howling and no revving of engines in the driveway at ungodly hours.

Yet, as Paul and Kev once noted, from little things big things grow and soon these seemingly minor noise irritations had two couples living in a warehouse conversion at their wit’s end.

Arguments developed. The courts were involved. Finally, an application was made for an intervention order after the father of the young Wiggles fan burst in on a dinner party to vent his frustrations.
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As more apartment towers rise from the ground in inner Melbourne and higher-density living is encouraged, disputes over noise are not uncommon.

In 2009, the City of Melbourne dealt with 2775 noise-related complaints, ranging from construction and street cleaning to buskers and spruiking.

The Environment Protection Agency, which sets allowable noise levels, estimates residential noise ‘‘significantly annoys’’ 770,000 Victorians every year.

‘‘It’s becoming more of an issue,’’ says Matthew Stead, chairman of the Australian Association of Acoustic Consultants, a body that rates the acoustic standards of buildings.

‘‘There’s more activity, but also people are more aware of these issues and less willing to put up with it. The maximum noise levels haven’t changed, but with more people there will be more noise on average.’’

In the City of Yarra, an area experiencing widespread multistorey developments, mayor Jane Garrett says the council recorded a ‘‘significant increase’’ in noise complaints over the past 12 months.

She cites the most common sources of unreasonable noise as loud music, parties, airconditioners and construction sites.

‘‘We understand that as our inner-city community grows, problems of this nature are likely to occur more frequently,’’ she says.

According to Stead, changes to the building code in 2004 helped reduce the problem of noise between apartments by raising the minimum standards in new developments. The greater concern is noise from outside.

‘‘These days we have far fewer discussions about inter-apartment living,’’ he says. ‘‘Now, it’s more about the general apartment: traffic, patron noise and drunk people walking the streets at night."

‘‘The issue of music can be dealt with in the building envelope if considered upfront. Patron noise is quite difficult to deal with;we can’t really change the source so it comes down to the new apartments considering that source.’’

Yet while standards are higher in newer developments, they don’t apply to those built before 2004. Rob Beck, general manager of Owners Corporations Victoria, would like to see a change.

‘‘At the minute there is no retrospective compliance requirement - no need to increase standards in a building 30 years down the track from when they were built,’’ he says.

‘‘We believe there should be something in place to look at this every five years.’’

Toby Archer, of the Tenants Union of Victoria, says current leasing practices do little to help. ‘‘You inspect with 50 other people, then pay your first month’s rent and bond up front."

"With no requirement to disclose whether a property achieves certain standards or has noise issues, problems may not become apparent until you’ve lived there a while, by which point you’re locked in.’’

Hence why something as simple as laying floorboards or a new home theatre system can end up in the hands of the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria. In 2009-10 it dealt with 433 noise cases serious enough for a file to be opened.

The most common issues were music and stereos (13 per cent), verbal abuse and arguments (11.4 per cent), airconditioners and heaters (9.9 per cent), dogs (9.3 per cent), parties (8.8 per cent) and car noise (7.5 per cent), although 92 per cent of those that required mediation reached an agreement - even the case of the feuding couples in the warehouse.

‘‘The family with the young child were shocked to find out an intervention order had been taken out,’’ says general manager Gina Ralston.

‘‘There were poor acoustics in the apartments so our dispute officers went through the issues with each party and they agreed to mediation.’’

Agreement was reached, steps taken on both sides, the order withdrawn.

‘‘We’re keen to mediate, as often these people are neighbours who are going to face each other every day. Anywhere you have people living close together - in warehouses, apartment blocks or retirement villages - you’re going to get issues, as when people get home they want to control the environment they’re in.’’

There are also steps being taken to tackle the issue at source. The City of Melbourne has introduced initiatives
such as a Waste Collection Code of Practice, monitoring of planning conditions for licensed entertainment venues and the use of local laws to address noise in public spaces.

Potentially noisy buildings, such as licensed premises, are often required to install acoustic insulation, while new residential buildings must undergo assessments before gaining planning permits.

Some cars are built to be quieter; governments are using low noise asphalt to reduce traffic noise. Melbourne is also one of many councils nationwide in a working group looking at increasing building standards.

Ivan Donaldson, general manager of the Australian Building Codes Board, says: ‘‘Governments agreed a few months ago that this was something to look into.’’ A study on external noise is now part of the board’s 2010-11 work program.

In the meantime, if you choose to live in the city and enjoy the benefits that offers, Archer warns it’s often a case of ‘‘buyer beware’’ and Stead suggests asking developers or agents the right questions.

‘‘Don’t just settle for a subjective response - ask for the standards that an apartment has been built to.’’

Where to turn when you've had enough

  • The EPA publishes a handbook containing the latest regulations, Annoyed By Noise, available for download through The Association of Australian Acoustical Consultants also publishes its acoustic rating guidelines, downloadable from
  • Councils offer a range of support, such as the City of Yarra’s after-hours service for reporting noise complaints. Council officers can issue warnings or on-the-spot fines using EPA guidelines or provisions under the Health Act. Police can also be involved, while on occasion councils will bring matters before the courts.
  • The Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria has trained staff to help with mediation. See
  • Owners Corporation Victoria has an internal process where people can raise issues and seek resolution. See

Ultimately, according to Gina Ralston of the DSC: ‘‘Communication is the key.’’

Author: James Smith 



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