Remember your schooldays? Listening to your favourite teacher introduce you to a newfound passion and developing your enthusiasm for an academic topic even further. Perhaps you’re feeling a sense of nostalgia as you sit at your desk reading this month’s issue of PSBJ, recollecting the very first time you were introduced to the captivating world of architecture. What we are taught in our younger years is deeply contributory to our personal development and, ultimately, shapes our future career aspirations. When reflecting on your current profession, chances are you can accurately join the dots and identify just how and why you’ve ended up sitting at the desk you’re working from today – and it’s highly likely that the origin derives from your school years. Speech intelligibility has unquestionably contributed to your professional progression. Now, remove yourself from a somewhat dreamy haze and fast-forward to May 2018 where today’s acoustics within school buildings – which, vitally, enable students to grasp what’s being taught – is in danger.
For a child to absorb information, they require the right listening environment, and if a space is not acoustically fit; that child will suffer academically. Many simple measures can be introduced to achieve acoustic compliance, and floor, wall and ceiling solutions all contribute to an acoustically-sound environment.
Open your ears
For the nine panellists that assembled around an oversized table on the ground floor of 10 Great Titchfield Street, London, on Wednesday 28th March, the issue of poor acoustics in schools was all too real. Chairing was Managing Director of Sustainable Acoustics, Peter Rogers, who opened the roundtable with the all-important topic ‘how does classroom design impact on inclusive learning?’. Focusing on faculty, Dr Sharon Wright initiated the discussion by highlighting that staff in schools are often overlooked: “...We tend to forget schools are workplaces,” commented Sharon, “and acoustics also impact the adults in a school...I often hear a lot of staff commenting that they struggle with voice issues due to the poor acoustics of a space.”
Touching on inclusivity and SEN applications, Acoustic Consultant, Richard Hinton, added: “Ideally, the idea for a classroom is that it should be able to be used by any student; regardless of their ability or state. All classrooms should be fit for any child.”
Loud and clear
Marcel Hendricks, Chairman at the Alliance of Construction Networks, remarked that when a space is acoustically treated; teachers are often the first to notice a discernible change, which he described as “a worry”. Marcel proceeded to refer to a study he conducted: “We carried out a test in which we studied two spaces in an existing school; one space was left untreated adjacent to a separate acoustically treated area. From day one, the teacher was the first to identify a difference. However, where pupils are concerned, it’s much more difficult, purely because they are frequently moving around; travelling from one space to another, and it’s challenging to quantify the influence of that improved space.”
Richard Hinton went on to reference 2012 report ‘The Essex Study – optimised classroom acoustics for all’, an investigatory examination that explores the right acoustic environment for all schoolchildren – inclusive of those with hearing impairments. Richard said: “...The Essex Study has indicated that students’ behaviours positively alter with the more acoustic absorption that’s added to a room. So, as you add absorption, not only do the noise levels decrease; schoolchildren’s behaviours also progress.”
However, Professor Peter Barrett critiqued the Essex Study’s judgments and suggested the report’s classroom example was “a completely unnatural comparison.” He proceeded: “I’ve never seen a classroom with hard ceilings and no finishes, glass walls on both sides and hard flooring – this is the standard of the classroom they compared against the improvements. It truly is an entirely unusual classroom that has been used as a baseline, and so the contrast was apparent, and, yes, that sort of space will, of course, be problematic.”
Having led the 2015 HEAD project study on Clever Classroom Design, Professor Peter Barrett recollected an element of his own research: “We looked at primary schools which were about 55m2, had acoustic tiles on the ceilings, carpets on the floors and – almost without fail – included display material on the walls. We took into account the basic design of the classroom in those terms. The spaces were quite consistent, and the conclusion was that, for this (large) study sample, acoustic issues aren’t a large variable that explains the difference in learning.”
“Peter’s comment is extremely interesting,” mentioned WSP UK’s Emma Greenland. “The types of classrooms Peter was investigating in his study would no doubt comply with minimum acoustic standards. So, it’s highly unlikely that acoustics would be picked out as a challenging factor. Unless acoustics are bad, they are not noticeable. What reports like the Essex Study demonstrates is the improvements and drivers for better acoustics.”
Emma earlier confirmed that school acoustics have a considerable impact on education. She unveiled the complexities previously encountered when liaising with design teams and highlighted the negligence of speech intelligibility in areas such as school break-out spaces. She stated: “When we think about the range of learning activities taking place in a school, it’s important always to question which of those activities involve speech as a mechanism to communicate, understand and, therefore, to learn...The vast majority of them will include speech to a certain extent. The importance of vocal communication is the first sticking point where the acoustic design is immediately challenged.” Emma moved on to demonstrate that good acoustic environments will benefit all. Her examples clarified that acoustically treated environments will assist “people over the age of 40, anyone under the age of 15 whose speech and language developments are still improving, individuals with any form of hearing impairment – from mild and temporary through to hearing loss – and those with a language processing disorder”.
Comfort and stress reduction
From an aesthetic viewpoint, biophilic design – a concept that seeks to re-establish our lost connection with the natural world in the built environment – appeared to be the running theme from Karndean Designflooring’s representatives. Commercial Business Manager, Robert Mallett, revealed that a fundamental criterion for architects and specifiers working on school projects is removing the institutionalised ambience of academic spaces and transforming them into more “friendly” environments. This “creates the mindset that students want to attend school to learn,” said Robert. He expressed that architects and specifiers are striving to bring natural ingredients from the outdoors into the interiors of public sector projects, such as schools and healthcare schemes. Using Karndean Designflooring’s LVT products as a leading example, Robert talked of materials that replicate colours and textures found in nature, such as stone- and wood-effect designs, being used in interiors to improve the wellbeing and productivity of end-users.
Robert’s associate Jonathan Goldsmith, fellow Commercial Business Manager at Karndean Designflooring, also commented on the benefits of biophilic design within school contexts. He recalled a recent parents’ evening: “After our appointment, I viewed one of the primary school’s new classrooms. My daughter’s excitement was what struck me the most when we entered the new space; the previous room we visited featured hard surfaces, unstimulating colours – and had an almost stagnant quality. The new classroom, however, is – what the school described as – bringing the outside, inside.” Jonathan noted that the new classroom’s features included nature-like components from the tones used for the flooring design that mimic those formed in natural environments and novelty designs such as mushroom- and log-inspired soft furnishings through to restorative colours and organic details. He continued: “Schools are recognising the relaxing benefits that bringing natural elements into a room has on the students within a school.”
Architect Carys Fisher from the IBI Group further cemented Jonathan’s remark, affirming that: “A child’s emotions can play a huge part in how they react to their environment – whether they feel comfortable in a space. Providing places that are less stressful for children is vitally important.
"Stress levels today for students are increasing, so it’s about designing an environment that makes them feel comfortable – and that’s not necessarily just within the classroom; it’s all spaces throughout a school such as dining areas and corridors.” Sharon Wright agreed: “Inspirational learning environments can contribute to good education...It’s one of the many factors that will help deliver great teaching.”
Continuing her discussion on classroom design, Carys said: “It’s key to think of the classroom as a whole. If you take on board the entire concept; the children’s uniforms, flooring and displays – as long as there’s a considered approach to all those aspects, you won’t end up with an under- or overstimulating space.”
BB93 and early engagement
Early engagement with professionals is a popular topic across the entire spectrum of the architectural and construction realm. What’s evident from Peter Rogers’ proposed question, if architects engage with an acoustic consultant early enough in the design stage, is, much like other divisions of the industry; early engagement is an issue that needs addressing. Carys Fisher revealed that she believes consultation with acousticians, in fact, isn’t undertaken early enough. She spoke of a typical scenario: “You’re involved in a scheme which you present, and then an acoustician reviews the design. It would be helpful if an acoustician’s review were to take place before planning, so we know those key principles. Also, if acoustic requirements are realised at the briefing stage it would be a huge step in the right direction.”
Karndean Designflooring’s Robert Mallett announced: “From my experience of dealing with architects and designers at the early stage of design, regulation is not something that comes up in discussion when I’m approached about a project. I’ve been asked about the decibel rating of a product, however, never the regulation.”
“When designing a building, a ‘test’ isn’t being produced, rather architects are working to create a physical form,” declared Professor Peter Barrett. Architects “have to consider which floors, walls, ceilings and finishes to include...These are all practical items. Surely, if you can say that you’ve considered X, Y and Z, a design will pass the test?” he queried. Emma Greenland responded: “The design elements can be very accurately predicted to achieve, for example, reverberation times.” She carried on to explain that for the majority of projects, an acoustician’s input is taken on board up to the planning or detailed design stage, but that communication is often lost during the construction phase, which could explain the problem of inappropriate acoustics within schools.
Marcel Hendricks, who has personal experience of the acoustic challenges faced by children with hearing impairments, described the acoustic concerns at his son’s school: “It’s a brand-new building, and the vast majority of classrooms would fail tests under BB93...I don’t see many schools being designed with acoustics in mind.”
Reflecting on the roundtable’s previous discussion on the Essex Study, Chair Peter Rogers asked if Marcel had witnessed schools such as those mentioned in the 2012 study. “Yes, many times,” responded Marcel. “We used one classroom as an example for a school; to show them how they could improve their acoustics. The classroom had large sash windows on one side and a glazed corridor to the other, with hard parquet flooring and a solid ceiling. The school, which housed 20 similar classrooms, met compliance within a day. For a price of approximately £2500, we managed to get it down to virtually an SEN BB93 level.”
Sharon Wright later highlighted the importance of schools recognising the need for good acoustics and suggested that schools need to be approached with advice on simple methods that can acoustically correct classrooms. She considered that, understandably, schools may have other challenges to address, and budgetary constraints might push acoustics down a school’s priority list. “If you’re in an existing building and the roof is leaking; that will, of course, need repairing before any other improvements take place,” compromised Sharon Wright.
In a bid to raise awareness of poor acoustics in schools, Carys Fisher proposed: “What could help is to assess existing stock and new-builds, much like the Welsh Government are doing currently, and measure concerns such as acoustics then collate that information, identifying the issues and communicate that back to the Government.”
Peter Rogers closed the roundtable stating: Acoustics “is just part of the bigger picture that needs to be considered, implemented and communicated to schools...Perhaps there’s work to do regarding educating the educators. Cost remains a running theme behind this roundtable. We cannot hide behind price because the cost of putting right the problem is more than getting it right in the first place. From an inclusive perspective, Peter revised: “The argument has been quite strong that classrooms should be designed for SEN students. Or, in a second scenario, there should be a dedicated space available for pupils with special educational needs.”
Acoustics aren’t the only aspect of improving the comfort of schoolchildren; aesthetics were also established as a way to promote the happiness and wellbeing of a pupil. As Peter Rogers concluded: “Connection to nature is something we’re going to see much more of.”
Addressing many of the issues discussed within this roundtable, Karndean Designflooring’s Korlok rigid core collection boasts quieter sound absorption underfoot to rooms below, compared to traditional laminate and real wood alternatives, with a pre-attached acoustic backing for quick and easy installation. Available now, Korlok features enhanced acoustic benefits and is ideal for applications such as educational environments, while meeting the current trend of designing spaces that connect us back to natural habitats.
Managing Director of Sustainable Acoustics
Associate Director at WSP UK
Professor Peter Barrett
Emeritus Professor of Property and Construction Management
Architect at IBI Group
Dr Sharon Wright
Senior Associate at the-learning-crowd
Chairman at Alliance of Construction Networks
Commercial Business Manager at Karndean Designflooring
Commercial Business Manager at Karndean Designflooring
Sponsored by Karndean Designflooring
Karndean Designflooring’s Korlok and additional acoustic LVT products are available for architects and specifiers to view first-hand at the Material Lab, 10 Great Titchfield Street, Mayfair, London, W1W 8BB or visit www.karndean.com.