Progressing the Learning Curve:
Designing Healthy Educational Facilities
Each of us has our own strategy for learning. Some need the faint buzz of a radio in the background while others need complete silence. Some work better sitting on an overstuffed couch sipping tea while others need the disciplined environment of a stark office or study room with only a desk and a chair. There are times when it's appropriate to pick and choose the ideal atmosphere for a given purpose. There also are times when a didactic environment should offer the amenities and comforts necessary for optimal learning. One of these instances is in the classroom or other educational facility.
A multitude of research demonstrates that classroom background noise (from air conditioners or heating units, freeways or busy roads, adjacent classrooms and various other noise sources) hinders a teacher's ability to teach effectively and presents a learning hazard, especially for younger students who are beginning to grasp the basics of comprehension. Often times, architects and designers of such institutions do not take acoustics into account in the design phase. Of course, the problems become evident after the foundation is poured, the walls are secured, the paint is dry and the students are shuffling through the halls. But, what then? Sure, experts can conduct studies and offer recommendations (which are often too expensive to implement), parents can express their concern at PTO meetings, teachers can beg the school board rectify the problem, but in many cases, it's just too late.
Take, for example, a recent study conducted at several Tempe, Arizona elementary schools. Each of these schools is arranged in an open-classroom format, some with only thin partitions separating one classroom from another. Decibel level readings, documented in classrooms that were either unoccupied or when students remained still and silent, ranged from 55 to 83 dBA*. For comparison, normal conversation takes place at 63 dBA, passenger cars at 50' register around 70 dBA and an alarm clock is about 80 dBA.
Simple. Design professionals must account for acoustics in the design phase. Doing so means taking the following factors into consideration:
These factors impact not only a student's ability to concentrate and focus, but also their ability to hear or understand what is said in the classroom.
- HVAC noise - Noise from air-conditioning/heating units or other equipment on the premises. Specify a maximum Noise Criteria (NC) level for the classrooms. Also, specify a maximum dB level for all equipment in and around the school.
- Transmitted noise from outside - Noise from nearby freeways, busy roads, train tracks and other transportation- or industrial-related sources. Identify noise sources in the vicinity and assess the possible impact. Based on this assessment, take the proper steps to minimize or eliminate the potential problem.
- Transmitted noise from other classrooms or other areas of the facility (particularly in an open-classroom setting) - Noise from adjacent classroom teachers, activities, televisions, radios, etc… Make certain your designs include sufficient barriers between learning environments.
Many recent studies demonstrate that acoustics is a significant inhibitor to productivity and that the presence of noise is directly related to lower test scores. As a result of this research (and numerous other studies), specific criteria for acoustics in classrooms are currently on the verge of inclusion in the building code**. Once approved, accounting for acoustics will be mandated and required. Until then, it is the responsibility of the design professional to take acoustic factors into consideration.
*Decibel level readings recorded during one-minute intervals. Actual readings throughout a typical day might register much lower or higher than those indicated. Readings reflect noise levels coming into the classroom (coming from sources other than the teachers and students in the room), rather than from the classroom. This is the level that teachers and students must speak or think over in these particular classrooms.
**The International Codes Council oversees the development and evolution of the International Building Code (IBC).
Check out the latest ANSI requirements for educational facilities and the related article Sound Education: Acoustic Standards in Educational Facilities.
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