Making Sound Decisions: Acoustical Design for Educational Spaces

Acoustics used to be known as a stepchild to the design and construction industry, but not any longer. Acoustics expertise is now respected as a normal part of a design team. It’s as common as MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing) on most projects. This is due in part to two factors: an awareness by clients and end-users of the importance of being able to hear well and communicate in their buildings; and clients, end-users, and architects having been“burned,” sometimes leading to expensive lawsuits, due to a lack awareness of the normal industry standard of care.

Basic Acoustics
For education projects, there are a number of basic criteria and principles that have an acoustical impact and should be considered for every educational project. These include the following.

  • Good clear and intelligible speech communication (via natural projection and electronically)
  • Projection of preprogrammed audio (and video) via sound, audiovisual, multimedia, and technology systems
  • The ability to hear all spoken communications (lecture rooms, classrooms, auditoria, etc.)
  • Control of unwanted noise and vibration from a building’s HVAC system, ductwork distribution, electrical, and plumbing systems
  • Design of the interior quality of the acoustic environment
  • Assessment and control of unwanted exterior environmental noises (e.g. vehicular traffic, aircraft flyovers, mechanical equipment, industrial facilities, etc.)
  • Special design of the acoustic environment for critical listening spaces (e.g. auditoria, theatres, studios, distance learning, multipurpose spaces, etc.)

  • Straightforward review and discussion between consultant, architect, and client can lead to establishing appropriate acoustical criteria specific to each project before detailed design recommendations are implemented into the contract documents. Follow-up during construction is important to help ensure that the constructor properly employs the intended performance conditions.

    A recent series of collaborative meetings with a full spectrum of design professionals and educational stakeholders, co-organized by the American Architectural Foundation and the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, resulted in a report titled“Report from the National Summit on School Design: A Resource for Educators and Designers.” A number of the recommendations made in the report findings relate to attaining “good acoustics” in schools. Some of the key factors follow.

    Support a Variety of Learning Styles
    Designing schools to enhance learning was a key theme of the conference. A strong recommendation was made to reexamine the traditional classroom setting with a new focus on learning environments to support student achievement, such as providing greater flexibility to accommodate a range of learning scenarios; e.g., small groups working together to tackle projects, peer tutoring, and individual study. New concepts of flexibility, where enclosing walls are minimized or eliminated, can sometimes sacrifice acoustics. Stick to the basics when it comes to acoustics and you won’t go wrong. Sound travels in air without proper barriers in the form of walls and screens. If you can see the noise source, you will undoubtedly be able to hear it.

    Integrate Technology to Enhance Learning
    More and more sophisticated technology, including digital and multimedia-based systems for education, entertainment, information, and wayfinding, will be introduced into classrooms and learning environments. Many of these elements may be integrated and “converged” into a unified, building-wide system. The ability to control unwanted sound and enhance the ability to hear wanted information will become more and more important. Early collaboration amongst members of the design team, including the clients and end-users, will be important.

    Become Centers for the Community
    There are definite enrichment benefits for everyone when schools partner with community organizations such as libraries, museums, and businesses. Resource centers, recreation centers, and performing arts centers can help schools become a central focusing point for mutual communications and engagement. Certainly, when the community enters a school for a public event, they are pleasantly surprised, proud, and appreciative when they can see and hear well. For informative gatherings, the ability to hear clear, intelligible speech whether or not it is amplified is critical. For entertainment as well as more formal cultural events, full-frequency music played in a well-designed room will result in an enjoyable experience. Ensuring that spaces are free from annoying echoes or mechanical equipment “rumble” is necessary the first time around. Redesign is too costly and stressful and should not be necessary. Acoustics is not a mystical art.

    Make Healthy and Comfortable Learning Environments
    Design and environmental quality have become two key factors in educational projects for the design community and the administration. Improving the quality and attractiveness of interior spaces for learning and public gathering has become mandatory.

    Various government requirements and national standards — such as the American with Disabilities Act; ANSI 1-12 Classroom Acoustics; and the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification program, emphasizing sustainability of projects — employed by the design professions now stress the importance of meeting various levels of successful environmental design. Recycled materials, such as acoustic tile and carpet, can be utilized with little effort or additional cost. When properly designed, glazing systems can be selected to keep out unwanted noise and allow much desirable natural daylight into spaces. Mechanical heating and air conditioning systems can also be designed for energy efficiency and minimal noise or vibration.

    Non-Traditional Options for Schools and Classrooms

    Schools are encouraged to explore under-utilized facilities in their communities — such as civic, retail, warehouse, and other potentially adaptable non-school spaces — not typically thought of for schools. Acoustics must be considered at the earliest discussion times when considering non-traditional learning facilities. An early assessment of potential acoustical difficulties, such as large reverberant spaces requiring a lot of highly efficient sound-absorbing materials to control excessive reverberation and occupant noise or detrimental echoes, can help in the selection of the most suitable buildings and interior spaces.

    Good acoustics, however it is defined for each educational project, is achievable. Access to good acoustics should and can be available to all students, as well as others who use the educational facilities, whether for educational uses or for community functions. Design decisions can have a serious impact on a student’s ability to focus, process information, and learn.

    Dennis A Paoletti, FAIA, is a principal consultant for Shen Milsom & Wilke, Inc. San Francisco (, consultants in acoustics, audiovisual, telecommunications, and security systems. He can be contacted at [email protected] or 415/391-7610.