BARCELONA RENOVATION: Thermal and acoustic insulation

One of my priorities in renovating a flat in Barcelona is to ensure the best possible thermal and acoustic insulation for peace and quiet at night, and to save money on heating bills.

Spain is a noisy country with a pleasant climate (at least on the Mediterranean coast and islands), and I guess there is a link between the two. The pleasant climate makes it easy to enjoy life outdoors, so Spaniards grow up surrounded by noise from others, and it doesn’t seem to bother them. But it does bother me. I grew up well-insulated from noise, and just can’t get used to the sounds coming from neighbours at night. It always amazes me how my Spanish family can sleep through noise of neighbours talking, walking around, and watching TV late at night.

The pleasant climate on the coast and islands also means that thermal insulation has never been a big priority when it comes to building homes. Why bother with the expense of thermal insulation if it never gets very cold? But good thermal insulation in a city like Barcelona means you rarely have put the heating on (and don’t get so hot in summer either). Thermal and acoustic insulation are related, and what comes as standard in Spain is not good enough for me.

In Barcelona many of the flats in the Eixample are badly insulated for both heat and noise. The old partition walls between flats in the Eixample are bricks about 10cm wide with a thin layer of plaster, which do nothing to stop noise.

If anything these bricks are great conduits of sound, so you can hear everything going on next door (and I’ve heard it all). As Chris says in the forum “Don’t talk to me about Spanish bricks. Horrible little skinny things full of holes”.

Noise pollution is not such a problem between buildings, as there are two load-bearing walls and a cavity between. Even so I often hear noise coming from neighbouring buildings, like dogs barking, people walking and talking, and TVs blaring late at night (from a deaf old neighbour who sleeps with the TV on). One hellish weekend about 10 years ago a Dutch hockey team of young lads rented a tourist apartment in the building next door, and practised their ball skills all night whilst partying hard. I lay in bed boiling with rage, and didn’t get a wink of sleep for two nights. I can’t stop what goes on next door, but I can do something to reduce the amount of noise that comes through the walls.

And of course there is noise from the street. My flat is on Bruc, which is a quiet street with light traffic that goes downhill, which makes a big difference as scooters and cars don’t have to rev up so much going downhill. Traffic noise on up streets is much worse. Even so, there is a murmur of noise coming from the street at night, whether your street goes up or down or sideways.

So my goal is to get as close as possible to blissful silence at night without totally blowing my budget, and hardly ever have to put the heating on. I also have an eye on fire-safety, as good insulation reduces the risk of fire spreading.

To achieve all this I’m putting a layer of high-density acoustic membrane (Membrana Acústica Danosa) against all the exterior walls. This is a type of heavy, soundproofing material with a bitumen laminate that works to block noise. On top of this I’m putting a layer of fire-resistant rockwool that also blocks noise and thermal transmission, and finally comes high-density plasterboard, on top of which will go another layer or plaster, followed by paint or wallpaper (design choices to come). For fire-safety I would have prefered not to use a bitumen laminated material against the exterior walls, but I’m told that it’s not a problem given the other measures put in place like the rockwool that goes on top.

Thermal and acoustic insulation in Spain
First comes a high-density acoustic membrane on exterior walls
Thermal and acoustic insulation in Spain
Next comes a layer of fire-resistant rockwool covered by high-density plasterboard

Thermal and acoustic insulation in Spain

Obviously this all comes at a cost, and it drives up my budget, but everyone has their priorities, and you pay more for what’s important to you. I want peace and quiet at night, and also hope to save money on heating bills. I guess I’m also doing my bit for the environment…

The windows and exterior carpentry also need insulation, but that’s a topic for another article in this series.

SPI Member Comments

Thoughts on “BARCELONA RENOVATION: Thermal and acoustic insulation

  • Dear Mark,

    Thank you for your informative article.

    I, like you, have struggled for years with getting a good night’s sleep in Spain.

    Having recently bought a top floor apartment in Sevilla on a quiet street with only one common wall I thought I had my problems solved. However, the noise comes up through the walls and floor from the neighbours below. While they aren’t practicing for the Spanish national furniture-dragging team as others have in other blocks, there is still enough of a clunk and clatter that I have to use ear plugs and still get woken.

    I was thinking that I might copy your sound proofed walls which look fine. As my tiles aren’t a patch on yours, I thought I’d also put down rugs, but was wondering if you had any clever suggestions for a specific sound proofing underlay? There seem to be a number of options on the British market, but I didn’t know if you or your builder might be more in the know re what is best/ available in Spain?

    With many thanks once again.

    Kind regards,

    Steve Church.

    • Mark Stücklin says:

      Hi Steve,

      I’m not looking at floor insulation because the flat below is an office, so empty at night. I regret to say I’m probably making their life hell whilst the works are underway. Mind you, I’ve had to live through it myself when the flat above was renovated, so now it’s just someone else’s turn. However, Chris’s suggestion sounds good to me, and I’ll ask tomorrow in the visita de obras what the options are, and post them here if I get any good ideas for insulation a floor for noise coming up from below.

      Furniture dragging comment made me laugh a lot.


  • Yes – furniture dragging. What IS this all about? It must, be, as Steve Church suggests, some kind of Spanish competitive activity requiring masses of practice. Singles, doubles, – mixed doubles, with Mr & Mrs either end of a park bench which they have to slalom round a salon/comedor, disqualification if you knock over the dining table. The furniture dragging gets to me diagonally from above and sideways. But it’s all over by midnight.

    In my case it is by 4 students who are otherwise astonishingly quiet. From time to time, during the day, one of them starts warbling to the accompaniment of a ukelele but no loud rock music. The boot will be on the other foot when I get my sounds rig in from UK, plug the Strat into the Fender Mustang and start seriously to learn the Eric Clapton version of “Crossroads”…..

    The Architect started his pitch by going on about thermal/acoustic paneling. This immediately filed itself, with barely any help from me, into a category headed ‘Big Bucks’. And then another – ‘Nicking Loads of Space from My Small Flat’. Above my two bedrooms there is a roof. Above the roof, the sky. To my right, the terrace of a Hostal which seems to have closed down. The bombers came the other night to shut off an alarm that had been sounding for 36 hrs. Silence resumed.

    Outside the bedroom, a narrow but picturesque calle peatonal. NO traffic! And the calles at each end of that are also peatonal. I hear nothing from below. I really do luxuriate in that unicorn shit known in Spain as ‘Silence at night’. And I’m only 350 metres from Plz Ayuntimiento of Spain’s 3rd city.

    So The Architect and all his thermal/acoustic works were given an Irishman’s Rise and I have not had to regret that for a moment.

    My floor tiles are those grim, 1960’s standard issue black with pale flecks. They will shortly disappear under good thick noise insulating underlay and 7mm laminado. The underlay was twice the price of the laminado – and that after it was on 50% reduction sp offer! So it had better be good.

    I still hate their horrid little bricks, tho.

  • Regarding thermal insulation, etc, I have it throughout the apartment. I paid for a higher grade on the living room that has sun blaring on 2 of the 3 exterior walls and the ceiling starting at about noon, lasting until sunset. It is amazing – before the insulation, the room was uncomfortable, even at night with the heat still radiating from the bricks. But the cost was not only the price of the insulation, but also space – the main wall facing the sun is now about 30cm thick, with insulation, an huge sliding glass door (thermal, etc) and an embedded persiana.

    I think you’ll be happy with your decision. Plus, if you ever decide to sell, it is something that adds value.

  • Chris Nation says:

    I do sympathise with those of you with walls facing the sun. Even in dear old Blighty, a day of sun produces a storage
    radiator, beaming the IR back at you after lights out. The flats opposite me are permanently in darkness because they have to have their persianas down or solid shutter doors closed all day. Might as well brick the windows up.

    I have removed the original wooden blinds. For a start, they roll up into an ugly box, about 35-40cms square, inside the room. Even the windows looking onto the lightwell and with the windows opposite also being mine, had those great wooden clunkers on. Why? Well, they’re long gone into the basura.

    But I realise that I must have some way of having the bedrooms room dark at night but with ventilation thro the open windows. My #2 hate, after the pathetic bricks, is that the Spanish seem to have settled on windows that open into the room. This is bonkers.

    It means you cannot have a sensible arrangement of, say, a Venetian blind and/or curtains and still open the windows. My windows did have an arrangement for curtains. A pelmet, sticking 40cms into the room on legs either side of the shutter box – in my case wrapped in a sort of brown fur. Weird. Basura!

    My windows have a sort of iron fence across them, about 30cms high. This serves, if it serves at all, to put a few flower pots out and makes it marginally more difficult for me to pitch myself down two stories, into the street. I have wondered the practicablity of removing the fences and re hanging the windows to open outward. I did reverse the swing of a door in my Bristol house because it opened with the light switch behind it. Dumb. But I am a bit reluctant, on account of being busted by the Facade Police.

    I have a cunning plan. The channels where the wooden shutters ran are still in position on either side the windows. The slot in the outside wall where the shutter emerged is still there. I will have roller blinds made in blackout which will fit the shutter channels. If I have some form of solid material along the width of the fence and its full height, the blind need only be lowered until it is just below the top of the fence. Thus, there will be a 30cm-odd gap below the blind which will serve to ventilate the room with the windows open. The trick will be to get blinds that operate with a chain or bead roller pull, not spring return. I note that IKEA only do spring return roller blinds now because too may children were suspending themselves by the neck … supposedly.

    Yesterday I completed the painting! Taa-Daaah! That leaves the lamindo and hanging 4 doors. I have always thought that, however smart from ankle level up, until the flooring is done, a place continues to look like a building site. Mine does. My builder quoted €1320 inc tax to lay very approx 60 sqm laminado and do that rodapie thing. I thought this a bit much. And indeed I have agreed a price of €700 elsewhere. Lovely.

    It seems a bit perverse to head up north to the wintery miseries of Blighty just now but I have to get my bits down here. Doc says my back will be much better for a proper bed, not the rack from IKEA I’m stretched on every night.

    And for anyone who is interested in the most economical way to watch geo-restricted TV, I shall have something to report about that, assuming the geeks have installed the right programmes to do the right thing. If it goes, it’ll work out at GBP40 for a 2nd hand router with something called Tomato firmware running it, with a VPN installed, GBP60 for 2 years’ sub. If you have a good speedy broadband ISP, can live without live broadcast from, for eg, the BBC, and live with catch-up only, that’s all it’ll cost.

    • Mark Stücklin says:

      Hi Chris, I’ve got all my windows opening in, but I don’t see a way around it, thanks to the fachada police you mention.

      My flooring budget is a whopping €12,580. There’s quite a few things in it I don’t understand, as it’s not yet urgent. However, I do know I’ll bring it down quite a bit as I’m going with synthetic parquet, not the real thing in the budget. Topic for another day.

      Be interested to read all about your TV solution when you’re ready. Will deal with all that in another article when the time comes.

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