Quiet Please

Today’s pedagogy demands teamwork and collaboration. In answer to this, architects and designers have opened up interiors, from classrooms to libraries to lounge spaces. Everywhere you look throughout campuses there’s a feeling of community and transparency, fostering an unending flow of ideas and information. Yet sometimes a little privacy goes a long way. In those sensitive rooms and spaces, four walls aren’t enough. That’s when you need the right windows and doors.

Even in this age of Facebooking your every thought and tweeting your every move, there are still areas in life, and on campus, where an expectation of privacy prevails. “Sometimes the students don’t realize it,” says Jerry Heid, vice president sales, Zero International, Inc. “But there will always be spaces that demand sound control.”

Keeping Things Private
Imagine, for instance, a counselor’s office where topics like addiction or assault are discussed. Or an administrative office where sensitive numbers are bandied about. Or even a music room where a violin is practiced. All of these spaces need a closed door to guarantee privacy, yet that door is often the problem.

“Doors and windows are the weak link in any room when it comes to sound control,” explains Noral D. Stewart, Ph.D. FASA, Stewart Acoustical Consultants. “To get ones that work well you will have to pay through the nose.” Just how expensive are STC, or Sound Transmission Class rated, doors? “A regular, hollow door runs anywhere from a couple hundred dollars up to $1,000,” continues Stewart. “Well-rated doors with frames and gasketing start at $2,500 and can go as high as $5,000.”

Costs like this often mean that highly rated doors often get value-engineered out of a project in the design stage, sometimes to dire results. “Our soundproof gaskets were value-engineered out of a courthouse project,” remembers Heid. “But there were an unacceptable number of mistrials because people could hear what was going on in the jury room, so we had to go back in.”

“Situations like that are rare, but do happen,” agrees Stewart. “In fact, I’m working on a re-engineering project right now.” Because of the cost of soundproof doors, Stewart insists, “It’s always best to try to find an architectural solution first. For instance, don’t have the band room right next to the practice room.” He points to a solution where he had a band room open onto a storage room, and then the storage room led to the practice room.

Design for Now and the Future
Be warned, though, that after an open-space room is designed and built, it is difficult to re-engineer acoustical solutions into the space. “Once you have an open space, only treatments to the ceilings and walls can control sound,” reports David Chaffin, architectural hardware consultant, Hard/Specs. “Basically, if you can see a person, you can hear them.”

Hearing them doesn’t necessarily mean understanding what they say. “You can create an open space, like a classroom or lecture hall, where you can plainly hear someone 30 ft. away from you,” says Stewart. “Or you can create a space like a lounge or restaurant where you can clearly hear your neighbor and everything else just sounds like noise.” Stewart laments that, despite pleas from clients, a room can’t do both.

But who can blame clients from wanting as much bang out of their design buck as possible?

“It’s called ‘future proofing,’” says Robert Sibilia, business development manager-Education, NanaWall. “Colleges need flexibility in their spaces. What is used as a classroom today may be repurposed 40 years down the line.”

Be Seen and (Not) Heard
Sibilia’s company offers an interesting solution to designers seeking a mixture of privacy and transparency. Window walls offer all of the visual connectivity of glass with the aural privacy of a wall. “People need a visual connection in their spaces,” he says. “We talk about ‘thickness’ and ‘stickiness’ of places. The thickness pulls people in to an area and the stickiness is where they congregate within those areas. Windows are ‘sticky’ areas.”

However, like doors, windows are weak links for acoustics. “You need bigger air space for better sound control,” says Stewart. He cautions that just looking at STC ratings may be problematic. “Exterior windows and walls are not good on their own for blocking low-frequency sounds like traffic and trains, but the STC rating treats all sound the same, no matter the frequency. So it’s important to keep the kind of sound you’re trying to control in mind as well.”

Residence hall doors need to surmount another challenge. While the room doesn’t need to be completely soundproof, it does need to meet fire codes. “Gasketing around the perimeter controls smoke in the case of a fire,” says Heid. “It’s a life-safety issue. Along with that, a well-sealed door will also control the heating and air conditioning.”

When designing a classroom for the K–12 market, there are guides for what the acoustics need to do. The ANSI S12.60 provides concrete parameters for acoustics to, in the words of the document, “improve the quality of education by eliminating acoustical impediments for all students and teachers, including those with communication disabilities.” There are no such guidelines in place for higher education learning spaces and no plans to put any in place. “Architects can still look to the ANSI code as a guideline, or to their state codes,” says Sibilia.