Acoustics and Daylighting

On any given school day, approximately 20 percent of Americans spend time in a school building. For those who do, what do they encounter? Let me give you a better idea….

The average age of our schools is close to 50 years, and studies by the U.S. General Accounting Office have documented widespread physical deficiencies in many of them.

Faced with an aging building stock and growing, shifting student enrollments, states and communities are working hard to build and modernize K–12 facilities. Those of us involved in school planning and design see this as an opportunity to enhance academic outcomes by creating better learning environments. After all, how can we expect students to perform at high levels in school buildings that are substandard?

We all know that clean, quiet, safe, comfortable and healthy environments are an important component of successful teaching and learning. But which facility attributes affect academic outcomes the most and in what manner and degree? A growing body of research addresses these questions. Some of it is good; some less so. Unfortunately, much of it is inconclusive. For the purpose of this article, I’ve chosen to delve into two influential components of design that have a dramatic impact on the learning environment: daylighting and acoustics.

It’s Time to See the Light
Classroom lighting plays a particularly critical role in studies. Appropriate lighting improves test scores, reduces off-task behavior and plays a significant role in students’ achievement. Recently, there has been renewed interest in increasing natural daylight in school buildings. Until the 1950s, natural light was the predominant means of illuminating most school spaces, but as electric power costs declined, so too did the amount of daylighting used in schools. Recent changes, including energy-efficient windows and skylights, and a renewed recognition of the positive psychological and physiological effects of daylighting, have heightened interest in increasing natural daylight in schools.

Backing this notion are studies, such as the one by Alberta Education titled “A Study into the Effects of Light on Children of Elementary School Age,” that have proven that students with the most classroom daylight progressed faster in one year on math tests and reading tests than those students who learned in environments that received the least amount of natural light.

While the scientific foundation linking daylighting to learning is accumulating, there have been distractions and fads that affect school lighting decisions. For example, there has been an ongoing controversy about so-called “full-spectrum” fluorescent lighting, and some schools have been re-lamped at considerable expense to offer this perceived benefit. While there are serious questions about the effects of full-spectrum fluorescent lighting, there is sufficient reason to believe that daylight provides the best lighting conditions.

Acoustics and Sound Learning
The research linking acoustics to learning is consistent and convincing: good acoustics are fundamental to good academic performance. Findings from Earthman and Lemasters indicate that higher student achievement is associated with schools that have less external noise, and that outside noise causes increased student dissatisfaction with their classrooms. Reports also note that excessive noise causes stress in students. High levels of background noise, much of it from heating and cooling systems, adversely affect learning environments, particularly for young children, who require optimal conditions for hearing and comprehension. Poor acoustics are a particular barrier to children and therefore should be of prime concern to those of us charged with making recommendations to school builders and planning boards.

Putting It All Into Practice
So, faced with this knowledge, what’s a school to do? If new construction is a viable option, the educational facility can create a learning-rich environment right from the start.

An example of incorporate ample daylighting and favorable acoustics into design is a new construction project Spector Group served as architect for: North Shore Academy, a vocational high school in Lake Success, N.Y., on Long Island’s North Shore.

Prior to moving from its temporary, rented facility into a new 125,000-square-foot school, both lighting and acoustics were thoroughly studied so that ideal conditions could be strategically implemented and incorporated right into the plans before ground was even broken. Of particular note is how the North Shore Academy was able to use site conditions and choice of materials to increase daylighting and create an aesthetically pleasing educational environment.

Since the North Shore Academy’s site was not heavily populated by trees, we were able to design the building to promote optimum use of daylight, taking maximum advantage of morning and afternoon solar track patterns to bathe the space’s interiors in light. Direct sun from the west would not be ideal, since the client would then need additional shading devices, but utilizing the site’s north and south exposures brought just the right amount of diffused light into the building and lessened the need for artificial lighting by day.

We also used overhead skylights to illuminate large places of assembly and meeting spaces and floor-to-ceiling curtain wall glass in the lobby and other public gathering spaces to achieve the desired effect.

Classrooms boast oversized, energy-efficient low emissions glass — an eco-friendly component of the design — to let the sun in without excessive heat. Light wells along the building perimeter ensure that even the lower levels of the building are amply illuminated, creating an ideal learning environment there as well.

Updating and Upgrading
On the acoustics front, there are several ways to reduce the sounds that interfere with learning. The two types of sound — the type that occurs simply by a number of people occupying an enclosed area and the type that occurs when outdoor noises such as air conditioning or cars driving by seeps in from single-pane (not double or triple insulated) windows — can both be greatly reduced through carefully selected materials.

Whereas the schools of yesteryear were primarily constructed from concrete blocks on the exterior and solid floor surfaces such as linoleum, terrazzo and tile in the interior, many modern day schools are incorporating materials that limit undesirable background sounds. Doing so immediately limits the “bounce effect,” or reverberation of sound, that many of us recall from our classroom days.

Alternate materials include a softer, more porous standardized metal stud and sheetrock wall construction, filled floor-to-ceiling with sound attenuating material in its cavities to absorb sounds. Acoustic tile ceilings achieve the same effect, as do fritz tile floors, which limit extraneous noises, yet work nicely in high-traffic areas.

When new construction is not an option, there are budget-friendly alternatives that cut down on reverberation. A popular choice is to apply materiality to an existing structure by using decorative acoustic panels to cover concrete block walls. Since they are applied right over the previous surface, the change is cost-effective and can even add a decorative touch.

For example, elementary schools often choose colorful panels to create a festive learning environment for little ones, while calmer hues are favored by the middle and high school clientele. Changing two of the three surfaces, by, for instance, installing ceiling tiles and wall panels, greatly reduces sound pollution. The change is immediate — and noteworthy — for the students.

When it comes to learning, a little attention to daylighting and acoustics goes a long way. With proper planning and consideration, stepping inside an American educational facility can be a better experience for all and one that is well worth the time and expense to get it right. 

Marc Spector, AIA, NCARB, is a principal at the Spector Group, a New York-based international architecture, master planning and interior design firm. To date, it has received over 100 awards from the American Institute of Architects and has completed over 1,500 projects in 12 states and five foreign countries. For more information, visit