Making all the right noises

  • 22nd May 2024

In this article, Jo Makosinski explores the key role acoustic treatments play in creating more-effective learning environments

Envoplan has worked with a number of schools, including Westminster Academy (pictured), to reduce noise pollution through the use of acoustic treatments, such as ceiling panels and baffles

The first thing you notice when you walk into many school buildings is the noise!

Whether it’s teachers giving lessons, PE classes taking place, or just the general sound of children and staff playing, chattering, or moving around; there is no escaping that educational facilities are noisy places.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. And, increasingly, we are learning that such noise nuisance can have a very-detrimental impact on teachers’ ability to do their jobs and pupils’ and students’ ability to learn. It can also lead to sensory overload which, in turn, can cause significant issues with learning and behaviour.

There are few places within school buildings where there isn’t considerable noise pollution, from entrance halls and corridors, to classrooms, dining halls, and external spaces such as playgrounds.

And this is where acoustic design becomes critical.

Bad management

Jeremy Tuffin, head of major projects at education design and construction specialist, Envoplan, explains: “The impact of constant loud sounds in learning areas gives rise to students having difficulties with reading, language, speech, and spelling, as well as cognitive development, leading to a lack of focus and motivation, added stress, and negative social interaction.

“If teachers are hard to hear over the general hubbub in classrooms, students will feel a lack of engagement, meaning their relationships with those trying to teach them, and also with other pupils, may significantly deteriorate.

“Studies show that schools featuring bad sound management lead to a number of disorders including voice strain from teachers having to shout, or hearing issues for both students and teachers, as well as behavioural issues among pupils, often resulting in poorer classroom discipline.”

Especially for younger learners, hearing at an early age in the classroom means higher levels of understanding when sounding words out; and for all learners, sound absorption makes it easier to hear and understand their teachers, meaning they will retain a greater knowledge from their subject lessons.

The World Health Organization recommends that noise should be less than 35 decibels in classrooms to allow for good teaching and learning conditions.

But one study of UK primary schools found the average to be 65dB – almost as loud as a tumble dryer.

Noise levels in some areas of a school can be as loud as a tumble dryer, making it harder for pupils and to concentrate and impacting on behaviour

Establishing a baseline

When considering classroom environments, in particular, there are a number of interventions that can be designed into new-build facilities or retrofitted into existing buildings to help mitigate noise nuisance.

For instance, thick curtains, wall-to-wall carpet, and soft furnishings can have an instant positive impact on noise reverberation.

But, thinking more long term, and looking more widely across all areas of a school estate, the first step should be determining where noise is coming from and how it moves round a space.

Dr Adam England, director and executive consultant headteacher at Noble + Eaton, explains: “For as little as £20 you can buy an acoustic monitoring device and walk through a school to see where they main hotspots are for noise.

“We work closely with schools to trace how noise is moving within and environment and usually it is down to the choice of surface materials.

“In dining halls and corridors, in particular, there tends to be shiny, hard flooring and if you look at a surface and it appears shiny and reflective to the eye, then it will be acoustically reflective too.

“Flooring sound travels upwards, so if the flooring is reflective and so is the ceiling, then sound will bounce around a room, amplifying the effect and making learning more difficult.”

This has led to an increase in the use of sound-absorbing materials, including cork, and technologies such as baffles in educational environments.

Bespoke solutions can help to dampen sound at the same time as enhancing the appearance of the environment

Sound absorption

Sound absorption is the term used to describe ways in which sound reverberation and echoes in a space are reduced via absorption, in order to enable a cleaner sound quality.

These materials can be porous or non-porous and may include things like foam, open-cell mineral, fiberglass, fabrics, cushions, throws, curtains, or carpets.

Unlike soundproofing, which creates a barrier against sound entering or leaving a space; sound absorption reduces reverberation and improves the clarity of sound, with treatments dampening the intensity of sound waves, preventing sound waves from reflecting off hard surfaces, and mitigating their resulting echoes and reverberations.

Tuffin said: “There is increased use of modern methods of construction (MMC) within the education sector and this provides huge scope for introducing acoustic materials.

“The choice of initial construction materials, as well as ceiling, wall, and flooring materials, is crucial. Then we can also look at internal surface finishes and even fixtures and fittings – pretty much anything can be used, both internally and externally, to mitigate noise.

“The best approach is to specify highly-absorbent materials and apply them to as many sides of the box as possible.”

For optimal impact, acoustic treatments should be added to multiple surfaces to reduce echoes and noise transfer

Material choice

When planning a new school building, England advises first looking closely at room adjacencies to ensure that art rooms, music rooms, and gymnasia are sufficiently separated from the more quiet areas where work takes place.

Heating, ventilation, or air conditioning system should also be distanced from learning spaces, while many rooms will require absorbent material placed high on the walls.

Larger communal rooms, such as assembly halls, benefit from an angled reflective panel over the speaking area so that the teacher’s voice projects clearly.

Even things such as bookcases and corkboards can help absorb sound reflections.

And evidence suggests that the shape of baffles can also play a part in how effective noise-reducing interventions are.

England said: “Hexagonal and right-angled triangles are increasingly being used as they are able to evenly distribute sound waves, which results in better acoustics and fewer echoes.

“Hexagon sound panels are also effective at absorbing high frequencies, which makes them ideal for use in spaces with lots of hard surfaces.

“And triangles are often used as, when placed together, they create hexagons and work in much the same way.”

He adds: “When I was a teacher I had a pupils fidgeting in class so I got them down the front to sit next to me.

“I didn’t know then what I know now; that I was putting all the noise behind them and really lighting up their medulla and creating problems with concentration and mood.

“An effective acoustical engineer can recommend appropriate additions designed to reduce noise.

“With the right support and preparation, any administrator can transform their school into an acoustically-sound environment.”

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