Quiet please!

Rob Crampton of Hush Acoustics looks at the crucial importance of getting acoustics right in educational buildings.

While modern educational buildings have benefited from various architectural and technological enhancements, good acoustics remain a key factor in enhancing the learning environment.

Indeed, many studies have proved that poor classroom acoustics can hinder learning and teaching. The culprits can be traced to three main noise sources – reverberation noise, airborne sound sources and impact sound sources. While reverberation is a common problem, it can have a significant impact on the classroom environment. This includes instances of background noise and group work-related noise that can crescendo to uncomfortable levels if classrooms aren’t soundproofed.

Similarly, airborne sound that travels through separating walls and floors and impact sound such as noise from footsteps on the staircase can also be disruptive to the learning process.

Special needs

While creating learning spaces with good acoustic performance may seem achievable and relatively standard, extra care should be taken when designing spaces for pupils with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Pupils with special educational needs are generally even more reliant on good quality acoustic facilities to bolster their health and wellbeing. Consequently, required reverberation times should be lower, sound insulation between adjacent spaces higher and indoor ambient noise levels lower compared to mainstream classrooms.

In New Zealand, there has been considerable debate around the effects that noise has on those with sensory processing disorders (SPD), which is particularly prevalent in those experiencing ASD. Pupils with sensory processing issues can be oversensitive to noise and other forms of sensory input. For example, the noise in a busy classroom can trigger meltdowns in ASD. A wide range of noise types were identified in the study that caused distress.

One of the categories of noise believed to have the most adverse effect on ASD pupils is noise in excessively reverberant rooms. The study found that reverberated noise can be a major stressor, particularly in confined spaces such as classrooms. In fact, many existing classrooms across Britain have little or no acoustic treatment.

Since ASD children, especially those with classic autism, have serious speech and communication impairments, noise can only exacerbate these issues. This is why a common strategy is to move autistic children to quieter areas in order for them to escape the noise.

Meeting requirements

The UK Building Regulations and the guidance in Building Bulletin 93 stipulate that these noises are controlled and that every room or space within an educational building is designed to achieve a certain statutory level of acoustic performance.

The most effective way to reduce reverberation, airborne and impact noise levels within educational buildings is to ensure high quality products are used. They should comply with the following:
• UK Building Regulations Approved Document E (England & Wales);
• Section 5 of the Scottish Building Standards (Scotland);
• Approved Part G (Northern Ireland).

These regulations set out important criteria for sound insulation performance for all types of educational buildings. Moreover, in order to help architects, contractors and acousticians to satisfy the requirements, the Government introduced the guidelines “Building Bulletin 93: Acoustic Design of Schools – Performance Standards (BB93)” to ensure all new school buildings are designed and built to achieve a certain level of acoustic performance.

Seeking soundproofing advice from acousticians early in the design process is crucial for achieving good acoustics in educational buildings.

Rob Crampton is managing director of Hush Acoustics