Facilities (Campus Spaces)

Shhh. How to Design Campus Quiet Spaces

quiet spaces 


When designing a space on campus for quiet (think libraries and meditation rooms), architects follow a four-step process that begins with defining quiet and ends with material selection. Here’s what that process looks like.

Define Quiet

There are levels of quiet. They range from noise that’s tuned down so that background sounds (such as the buzz of a coffee grinder or the click of keyboards) serve as white noise to silence so complete that you can hear a pin drop. “In fact, if we were to ask 50 people what quiet means, we’d get 50 different answers, ranging from hearing a pen click to a certain amount of white noise that enables focus,” says Mike Suriano, AIA, LEED-AP, principal in the Columbus office of NBBJ.

Define Users and Their Needs

The level of quiet chosen depends upon the users and their needs. Musicians need spaces that prevent sound from entering and exiting, and there are technical requirements for such spaces. Meditators need spaces that prevent sound from entering, but a little bit of HVAC white noise can be comforting. Students studying may need either a very quiet space or a space with background noise. “Don’t take the HVAC system’s background noise lightly,” confirms Cathy Bell, AIA, LEED-AP, senior associate in the Boston office of NBBJ. “It can make or break a quiet space. It can cover other sounds.”

Sometimes users want to be alone together. Think of a student finding a quiet space in a room with other students, such as a library’s reading room. “In the library world, we hear the idea of being alone together a lot,” says Suriano. “When focused energy is required, there’s a psychological benefit to seeking out a coffee shop or a low-key atmosphere as opposed to going into a space where you’re completely isolated.”

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Design Spaces Where People Feel Safe and Comfortable

Once quiet and users and their needs have been defined, it’s time to work on design. That’s done from the outside in, from noisy to less noisy to quiet as you progress into the building. For example, it is difficult to make a quiet space work when placed next to a dining hall. Those two spaces are best separated by a space in between. Typically, quiet spaces are not placed next to elevators or mechanical rooms, because ensuring quiet means choosing soundabsorbing wall materials, which can eat up a budget when a more cost-effective solution is to locate the space elsewhere. On the other hand, sometimes quiet spaces are adjacent to one another (think multiple study rooms along a corridor). In this case, choosing sound-absorbing wall materials ensures quiet from room to room.

“The library at University of Virginia’s College at Wise is an excellent example of designing from the outside in and balancing social spaces with quiet study areas,” observes Roland Lemke, AIA, LEED-AP, design principal based in CannonDesign’s Washington, DC, office. “The 24-hour zone, the open part of the library, is an active space. In the middle of the building are study pods. And tucked along the northern face of the building are a series of quiet study rooms, which are separated by glass walls so students have quiet and feel separated without feeling isolated.” The $37-million facility features 68,000 square feet of space on six floors.

Quiet spaces are about the sense of hearing, obviously, but they’re about other senses as well. As Lemke notes, “Quiet comes with a mental consideration.”

quiet spaces


For example, orienting a space toward a view that allows light in and allows students to feel inspired. Similarly, the smell of bread or coffee can evoke calm and quiet, while pungent odors, like fish, can be distracting. It’s long been noted that color affects mood, so choosing neutrals can create a feeling of relaxation, leading to focus. And even the size of the space makes a difference. Breaking large spaces into smaller spaces through furniture groupings invokes quiet from grouping to grouping.

Choose Materials

The last part of designing quiet spaces is material selection, in which there are several considerations.

  • Walls: Choose fabric-wrapped acoustic panels, which come in a variety of sizes and absorb sound and reverberation, for improved speech intelligibility and less ambient noise.

  • Ceilings: Look at high Noise Reduction Coefficient (NRC) acoustic ceiling tiles, which are available in a variety of sizes and shapes and can be designed to add to a space’s ambiance. NRC, which ranges from 0 to 1, is an average rating of how much sound an acoustic product can absorb. The higher the rating, the more sound is absorbed.

  • Floors: The most commonly chosen product for enhancing quiet is carpet. The thicker the pile, the greater the sound absorption. For even more help from the floor, add an underlayment, such as rubber, which reduces passage of impact transmission noise. Know, too, that there are plenty of underlayment options if wood, laminate, or tile flooring is chosen, such as cork, vinyl, rubber, and foam.

    NBBJ recently completed renovating a 19,000-square-foot space at Boston University to house the Howard Thurman Center (HTC) for Common Ground. Inside is a 400-square-foot listening room where users can listen to their inner voices to find common ground with those around them, which Thurman advocated. The round room has no windows, “so it’s about active meditation,” says Bell. “It’s a quiet space in which to find yourself.” The room is done in soft materials. The floor is natural cork. Half the wall is lined with a natural, petrified moss. The other half is lined with a sound-absorbing fabric panel with insulation behind it to prevent sound from bouncing around the room. Colors are muted and neutral. Lighting is indirect. The room is constructed with a double wall, so there’s space between the wall that is the corridor and the round wall that forms the room.

  • Furniture: Patrick Calhoun, AIA, senior planner and senior associate in the Detroit office of Stantec Architecture, notes that furniture is an important consideration in designing quiet spaces. He cites built-in quiet nooks at Grand Valley State University’s Mary Idema Pew Library Learning and Information Commons (a $65-million facility completed in 2013), which are wrapped in acoustic fabric. He notes, too, the importance of books in quiet spaces: “They’re free sound absorption that say you’re in a place of study.” Books are reminders of the importance of knowledge, are appropriate elements in quiet spaces, and they work to break down a room’s scale.

The four-step process to designing campus quiet spaces is tried and true. Following these steps and placing a focus on high-quality construction is a recipe for assured quiet.

quiet spaces 


ISLANDS IN THE STREAM. On a busy campus, it is important for students to have space and time for quiet reflection, mediation, study, and stillness. These quiet spaces can happen spontaneously as students discover out-of-the-way spots in which to settle, or they can be deliberately designed and furnished within campus facilities in order to offer respite from a hectic schedule. Attention to the details of location, size, materials, and furnishings contribute to the desirability of these areas.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management September 2019 issue of Spaces4Learning.