With listening surely central to learning, why has it taken so long for the government to act seriously on acoustic standards in new schools?
After so much money has been spent on a raft of new schools, we are only now hearing that verification that the BB93 acoustics standard has been applied in their designs will soon be required (well, in England anyway). How can that be? Have the schools' designers missed the point of their work?
I had always thought that one of the fundamental design requirements of schools was that they should provide good conditions for teaching and learning - which seems to imply that teachers (and pupils) can be heard and can listen easily to each other. We don't design swimming pools that don't hold water (well, not usually), and we don't design stadiums and auditoriums where the audience cannot see. So how can we end up with schools where listening is difficult, where teachers have to shout to make themselves heard over the general ambient noise levels and where little children (who often have low voice power) cannot make themselves heard?
Schools are not really about sense of community, supervision, security, energy performance, sustainability – important though all of these are to the overall performance. Schools have to be about teaching, and learning, and community, and supervision… and the rest. The critical starting points for designs therefore must be around listening, communication, privacy, concentration and so on – in other words design acoustics.
The fundamental of human society is communication. How is it that many designers don't know what that means for their designs - or, if they do, don't bother enough about it?
I have been involved in research into schools acoustics since the late 1960s and worked on the design of many new schools since then. I have established information on the noise generated within open-plan schools by their occupants (data not provided in BB93, despite being essential to sensible acoustic design) and researched the strengths and weaknesses of open and cellular planned buildings for the Scottish Executive (now government) – information that clients and designers need to take into account before “pixel is put to screen”.
However, one abiding issue is that acoustics tend only to be thought about late in design development - often too late to influence plan-form, section and even materials selection and ignoring – or in ignorance of the information that we have about acoustics in the design of a schools. We are left with remedial action in the run-up to construction. Not a formula for effective and integrated solutions! Is this surprising? Well, for many of us involved, not really – given that the coverage of acoustics in many schools of architecture is now minimal, and that designers really have too many other issues of, in their view, “much greater concern” to take into account.
The situation is not helped either by the complex nature of BB93 (from an ordinary architect's point of view, that is). There is little in that document that helps them design buildings except at the level of construction detail. There was guidance many years ago that actually pointed designers in the right plan, section, form directions – but BB93 does not do that.
How can we end up with schools where listening is difficult and where teachers have to shout to make themselves heard over the general ambient noise levels?
Why? Perhaps because those involved in developing the guidance did not see that as their remit, or perhaps because we have so few architects who are also acousticians and can “see” the way that the many issues that designers have to deal with can be integrated with sensible and practical acoustic design, from the outset. When BB93 is reviewed, perhaps such architects should be involved. In the meantime, we can only applaud the decision to verify the application of BB93 – but perhaps the real issue is to ensure that clients and designers have the benefit of early design stage input on communication, privacy and other acoustic issues. That could really make a difference!
Some of our clients are now seeing the light and bringing acoustics into the team from square one, but this needs to be universal so that designs are influenced by such considerations. In addition, designers need to be conversant with the practical issues involved; they need to be educated about acoustics in design. Can we afford for this to be left as a Cinderella subject? After all, the fundamental of all human society is communication. How is it that many designers don't know what that means for their designs – or, if they do, don't bother enough about it?
Nick Charlton Smith is an acoustician and architect at the Charlton Smith Partnership in Tayside, Scotland.