Adam Bulger in Building Operations
Complaints about smelly neighbors are nothing new – and they’re anything but trivial. Avery Gilbert, a Colorado-based psychologist who studies human odor perception through his firm Synesthetics, says evolution has hard-wired humans to dislike odors that signal danger and disease. Our brains automatically respond to smells from decay and smoke with unease and anxiety.
“You can imagine evolutionary reasons why, as a species, we react so strongly,” Gilbert says. “It involves our health and survival.”
When a board gets an odor complaint, the first job is to determine who or what is causing the stink. Robert Ferrara, CEO of Ferrara Management Group, says that when residents complain about smelly neighbors, his staff searches common areas and apartments to find the offending odor’s source.
“You may assume it’s the apartment next door, but it may be the apartment above or below,” Ferrara says. “You have to get the layout and locate where the smell is actually coming from.”
Sometimes suggesting a simple change in behavior—such as asking smokers to smoke near windows—is enough to clear the air. If the smell lingers, building management can suggest installing smell containment measures like door sweeps and high-efficiency particulate arresting, or HEPA, air filters. In other cases, the malodorous shareholder needs to address structural problems that let smells travel between apartments or into common areas. While the fix can be as rudimentary as caulking holes, specialists might be needed to address problems in sophisticated systems, such as the building’s HVAC lines.
Maria Vizzi, president of Indoor Environmental Solutions, a New York company that specializes in interior air quality, says her company is often called on to address stagnant smells caused by lack of air circulation. To fix circulation problems, her technicians use miniature video cameras to pinpoint obstructions hundreds of feet deep in HVAC ducts and dryer ventilators.
“The ducts need to be respected,” Vizzi says. “They’re the lungs of the building, and if there’s a blockage it’s going to impact the airflow and create these types of quality-of-life issues.”
Richard Siegler, an attorney with Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, says second-hand smoke is not a mere nuisance; it’s a recognized health risk, especially for asthma sufferers and children.
“You don’t have the same issue with cooking odors,” Siegler says. “They’re not life threatening. And I don’t think cat urine is either.”
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