Working from home has woken many to the downsides of noise pollution in crowded Singapore. Soundproofing specialist Nicholas Quek is helping people work, live and sleep better with his start-up Noise Plaster and also striving to do business in a more thoughtful way.

Nicholas Quek did not expect his passion for music to lead him to the dusty world of construction. “I was very into how music is produced, recorded and reproduced,” says Quek, who spent his teenage years immersed in the songs of J-pop sensations such as Hikaru Utada and Ayumi Hamasaki.

While at university, the audiophile realised that sounds from instruments and voices when played through different high-fidelity permutations could have a profound impact on our emotional response to music. “It’s a cross between art, emotions and technology,” he says.

Quek decided to drop out of his Computer Science degree course at the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2011 to help people build their home hi-fi and theatre systems. Together with a friend, he set up an acoustics consultancy, delving into the world of speaker configurations and acoustic panels. Unfortunately for the budding entrepreneur, he soon discovered that the market for home audio-visual design was rather saturated.

However, while kitting out residential spaces, he realised how noise from outside could wreck a good listening experience indoors. Moreover, for many apartments and rooms, sound leaks in through windows and doors, not so much through walls.

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“The reality is that noise travels through air gaps in windows and doors,” says the 32-year-old. “For soundproofing, you cannot have any gaps. You need to be very precise.” Sensing a gap in the market for acoustic insulation, he rolled up his sleeves and learnt to do everything from scratch, whether it was manually removing existing frames, installing double-glazed glass or plastering walls.

It was arduous, messy work, particularly for a cerebral computer geek who was more comfortable assembling motherboards or testing amplifiers. Today, his soundproofing company Noise Plaster is a 20-person operation, with sales set to hit $2 million-plus this year.

Demand for acoustic insulation was rising even before Covid-19, which last year sent corporate Singapore into safe distancing mode. As more people work from home and take Zoom calls in their bedrooms, they are finding they can- not shut out a yapping dog or a kara- oke-loving neighbour.

Land-scarce Singapore has some 5.7 million residents packed into a tiny island, making it one of the five most densely populated countries on the planet. Most people live in high-rise flats that are stacked close together, some situated next to MRT tracks or high- ways. Research from NUS shows that Singapore’s outdoor noise levels average 69.4 decibels (the decibel or dB is a unit of measure for the intensity of sound waves).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies sounds above 65 dB as noise pollution and those above 75 dB as harmful to humans. It further advocates that average exposure to night- time noise should not exceed 40 dB, which is slightly more noisy than an air-conditioned room.

The WHO also highlights that noise is the second largest environmental cause of health problems. In particular, noise that cuts into sleep can contribute to insomnia, which in turn can lead to fatigue, irritability, poor concentration and anxiety. If noise pollution is prolonged, it can even contribute to more chronic conditions such as hypertension and hearing impairment.

Thinking in abstract ways

“Noise is something people in Singapore are not very aware of until they move into their home and face the problem, for example during sleep,” says Quek. Some try to mitigate this with carpets or curtains but these don’t do much if noise is leaking in through windows or doors.

A well-fitted, weather tight and highly durable soundproof window, however, can cut up to 30 dB of noise versus a standard window, which reduces only about 10 dB of noise. Moreover, with tinted, low-emissivity glass, heat and ultra-violet (UV) can also be reduced.

Quek had to master the science and the heavy-duty aspects of fitting windows and doors on the job. “It was re- ally tough as this is a traditional industry,” he says. New hires typically pick up the trade by following and observing a foreman at work.

However, Quek wanted to drill down, work methodically and resolve problems that cropped up. He attributes this to an interest in learning how things worked, something an early exposure to computers helped.

When he was about 10 years old, his father — an early adopter of technology — brought home a Datamini PC. He was drawn to the machine, not just for what it could do but how it worked. And because he started dabbling with computers before the interface became graphical, it made him think in a lot more abstract ways, he reckons.

After secondary school, Quek attended Nanyang Polytechnic where he was in the pioneer batch of its Game and Interactive Media Design diploma course, which was heavy on programming, 3D graphics and gaming. Quek then continued on a computer science trajectory but decided to quit in his second year at NUS to explore his passion in music and sound engineering. His parents, a maths teacher and a housewife, were aghast.

“I didn’t feel that completing the de- gree would add value to my life. Even though I was good at programming, I didn’t really feel that was a career choice for me,” he says.

“Just because you are good at one thing doesn’t mean you have to do it. You could be good at other things as well.” That unconventional approach to life stands apart in a society that prizes the paper chase.

Now, after years of long hours and not taking a regular salary, Quek’s quest may be starting to pay off as Noise Plaster hits a sweet spot.

Doing business right

“Demand for soundproofing far outstrips supply,” he notes, adding that the local market is underdeveloped. Even post-pandemic, working remotely looks set to be an entrenched part of office life and the demand for quiet spaces should continue to gain momentum. For Noise Plaster, which is licensed by both the HDB and Building and Construction Authority, roughly 40% of its business comes from the HDB segment. Another 40% comes from condos and the remaining from landed property.

The biggest challenge for Quek in meeting demand is finding the right people to work for him. “Soundproofing is hard, manual work but also very technical work,” he says. Noise insulation calls for a high level of precision and for operating procedures to be followed to the letter. If not, outcomes can vary.

The lack of skilled blue-collar labour is also a long-standing headache across the industry in Singapore. “How do we attract locals to construction, which is seen as dirty, dusty manual labour, even if we are not a typical construction company?” he says.

Like others in the building trade, Quek has had to turn to foreign workers to do the heavy lifting. His response, however, has been to craft a training and management process that builds expertise and champions quality workmanship, while treating staff well and with dignity. For one, Noise Plaster pays its migrant workers “well above the market rate” and houses them in apartments or houses, not cramped dormitories. According to media reports, Quek pays anywhere from $400 to $700 a month to house each worker.

More than that, he also tries to maximise the value of every person in the team. At Noise Plaster’s premises in Woodlands, the production process is designed as an assembly line with specialised stations. “The work flow of our space is such that newcomers can pick up the job in bite-sized pieces,” he says.

There is, for instance, one station for cutting the aluminium frames, which are supplied by AluK, a leading manufacturer of soundproof window and door systems. Other stations include machining, assembling, fitting hardware such as handles and installing glass.

Noise Plaster monitors the learning progress of each worker, using tools like 360-degree feedback reviews, then deploys them to where they are strongest. “It is learning on the job but in a structured, data-driven way,” he says, noting that this is not something he sees in traditional outfits.

Aside from this, Noise Plaster runs cultural training sessions for its migrant workers, who tend to come from rural, less educated backgrounds in the Indian subcontinent. This includes training to meet clients’ expectations on tidiness, workmanship and communication.

The millennial entrepreneur takes inspiration for his business from the evolution of Blum Inc. From a humble beginning in hinges, the Austrian company has become a stand-out name in cabinet hardware and a status symbol in kitchens and wardrobes in over 120 countries. “Blum is an example of what Noise Plaster can be,” says Quek, pointing to the way the company has honed its quality, branding and innovation.

As he strives to do business in a more socially just way, he also hopes to turn the person-centric management model he created at Noise Plaster into a template that can be franchised, so that it can be used by other firms to tackle supply chain and other operational challenges.

“How to earn money and run a business, that’s not my natural talent,” he concedes. “I’m a problem solver. If there’s a problem, I like to solve it.”

As he uses his troubleshooting skills to help customers work, live and sleep better, this soundproofing specialist could spur change in the construction and building materials industry. That is something that would no doubt be music to his ears.