Historic Districts Can Be Noisy

We have a solution to decreasing noise pollution inside an old house.

Historic window with an insert.

Courtesy of Indow

When the first bricks were laid for Cynthia Howar’s home no one knew that anything like an airplane would ever exist. The windows and walls of her town house in historic Georgetown were designed to cover the sound of horseshoes on cobblestone, or the off-key singing of men stumbling home from the tavern. But now, the roar of Boeing engines and the incessant thrumming of helicopter convoys fills Washington DC’s airspace. Noise pollution is a nightly problem in Washington DC’s historic neighborhoods and elsewhere in historic districts which were built on waterways, now airplane through-fares. Residents want a solution.

For Howar, a realtor, the trouble started in 2015 when National Airport, which sits on the Potomac River near the affluent, historic neighborhoods of Georgetown and Alexandria, extended its runway allowing larger planes to use the airstrip. Originally intended to be a regional airport, National grew to accommodate international flights, which meant air traffic in the middle of the night. Residents weren’t aware of the change until jet engines served as a literal wake-up call. “Someone in the DC government claimed there would be no noise impact, without anything to back it up,” says Howar, “just total nonsense!”

Led by local government representative Ed Solomon, a confederacy of citizen associations rallied to combat the noise. Their goal was to file suit against the FAA to get the flightpaths reverted to the way they were. The historic neighborhoods of Foxhall, Georgetown, and Alexandria house some of the most influential people in the country. Eventually, the group convinced the court to commission a noise study, but, for the duration, the largest planes were rerouted, and evening and early morning noise dissipated. When the study concluded, the planes returned. Nobody knows why, except that influential people fly.

When residents in historic Grosse Point, Michigan, and St. Paul, Minnesota, started hearing jet engines rattling their windows, they didn’t demand different flightpaths. They sued the noise polluters to subsidize noise abating windows for their homes. Replacing windows is easier than rerouting airplanes.

A closeup of Indow’s compression-fit acoustic panel.

Courtesy of Indow

Philadelphia’s historic Lippincott Mansion is another example of this quieter, less controversial solution. Built in 1886, the 12,000 square foot Aesthetic mansion now houses an antique musical instruments shop, Vintage Instruments, owned by Catherine Jacobs and her husband Fred Oster. Located on the “Avenue of the Arts,” the musical duet sells and repairs rare, specialized instruments. Sound is their business, so the wail of firetruck sirens soon became unbearable. “There’s a fire department a few blocks down the street,” says Jacobs, “they go up and down Broad Street along with buses, cars, and people. The exterior noise was making us crazy.”

Instead of trying to fight city hall, they called Indow, a company based in Portland, Oregon, who installed inserts in eight key windows. This immediately reduced incoming noise and even increased insulation. Crucially, using inserts meant Jacobs didn’t need to replace the historic single-pane windows which, as she said, “are big enough for a horse to jump through.”

Indow’s window inserts didn’t require any special permission from slow-moving bureaucrats. “It’s a solution that has worked out really well,” says Oster, “it made a noticeable difference straight away.” Lippincott, which is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, maintained its historic integrity and successfully separated the sirens outside from the symphonies inside.

Along with Indow, companies with similarly effective products include Mon-Ray and Marvin Windows and Doors. Since 1988, hundreds of thousands of Mon-Ray acoustically rated window and door products have been installed on thousands of homes as part of Airport Sound Insulation Programs. Major airports themselves, from Anchorage to Tampa, use acoustically-rated inserts to dampen airplane noise for travelers.

When faced with intrusive noise, whether from the raucous streets of Philadelphia or encroaching flightpaths, it can be tempting to try to tone down the world. Instead of trying to defeat outside noise, an easier solution is to fortify your domain with noise-abating windows or interior window inserts. These can be either wood or aluminum and are imperceptible from passersby. Depending on the severity of noise, different options exist for higher performance levels and thicker glass. 

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