There appears to be a malaise within the design and construction industry when it comes to the importance of good acoustic design in our schools and academies. Of course, not being able to hear the teacher clearly can, for some children, be an unfettered joy. For the vast majority of conscientious teachers and pupils, however, the effects of bad acoustic design can lead to an educational life of underachievement, frustration and ultimately, failure.
Good school acoustic design can not only decrease both speaker and listener fatigue, it also provides a happier, more comfortable environment with fewer distractions, enabling both teachers and pupils to work effectively. For example, research shows that noise levels within classrooms can be correlated to pupil performance, with excessive noise having a detrimental effect on test scores (noise affects the processing of verbal and non-verbal tasks, particularly with regard to reading).
Research has also shown that good acoustic conditions improves pupil behaviour – and this isn’t the only benefit to teachers, who are less likely to suffer from voice strain when acoustic conditions are correct.
Unfortunately, too often we fail to consider acoustics as an integral part of building design. It’s not so much bad practice, as a difficulty integrating current building design and learning requirements such as exposed soffits, open plan learning and flexible space, with good acoustics which traditionally means cellularisation, solid walls and acoustically absorbent ceilings.
Traditionally part of the problem has lain in Building Bulletin 93 (BB93), which has been relied on by designers as a bible for acoustic design in education, but has been found in many areas to have given inadequate advice. This is being remedied by the release of the Education Funding Agency’s document Acoustic Design Standards for the Priority Schools Building Project which can now be used as an alternative performance standard in place of BB93 for all new projects. It is hoped that this document will eventually supersede BB93 altogether.
Unfortunately, within the Building Regulations which govern school design, there is still no requirement for post-completion acoustic testing to demonstrate compliance. This means that often the stated design standard is not enforced, or despite the good intentions of the design team, errors in construction (something as simple as an improperly sealed cable penetration) mean that the required standard is not achieved on site.
The EFA standards make a big leap from BB93 in proposing a minimum standard for new elements fitted within a refurbishment, where previously none applied. These same standards are also proposed as the minimum acceptable standard where alternative performance standards are proposed (and those alternatives must be justifiable). Unfortunately, again, this is not enforceable within the current Building Regulations and as such acoustics is often ignored altogether in such schemes and regarded as an unnecessary cost.
There are a host of things the design and construction industry can do to help the situation including:
- Allowing acousticians to engage directly with the school rather than being kept at arms length. This enables us to address specific concerns, understand how individual schools operate, and what their acoustic aspirations are – delivering a bespoke design rather than risking a “belt and braces” overspecification.
- Integrated design – seeing acoustics as a fundamental part of the design team rather than as a “bolt on” can save money and lead to better design.
It is imperative that the education sector realises the importance of good acoustics as an integral (early) part of the school design process. It is also vital, however, that acousticians continue to push for a greater understanding of the importance of acoustic conditions in schools, ensuring that our advice, which has a massive educational impact, is definitely heard at the back.
If you are designing an educational facility – or if you work in one where the acoustics aren’t working for you – please get in touch. We’d be delighted to hear from you.