(Underlines sections added by Blake
A. Engel, All Church Sound; see final comments at the end of this
Amid the largest U.S. school-construction boom in a generation,
designers and architects are worrying about more than just how
classrooms look. They are also concerned about how the rooms sound.
The usual hard-surfaced finishes in classrooms have always created
an echo-chamber quality. But recent changes have made matters
worse. Indoor air-quality requirements force schools to install
noisy heating and cooling equipment. Suburban sprawl brings
roads and schools closer together, making traffic noise a problem.
And even modern teaching methods, which emphasize group work over
lectures, add more voices and more acoustic clutter to the environment.
More than an annoyance, the increasing classroom clatter can
be a detriment to education. According to educational experts,
poor acoustics are one of the biggest treatable obstacles to
learning. Studies have found that students, regardless
of hearing ability, perform worse in noisy classrooms than those
in quiet ones, even within the same school. And teachers feel
it, too, by having to lecture above the racket. They miss an average
of two days per year due to vocal fatigue, according to the National
Center for Education Statistics.
The effect of poor acoustics is particularly acute among those
without full command of speech, including young children and students
whose first language isn't English. People in the early stages
of language acquisition, be it as a second language or young children,
don't have the ability to "fill in the blanks" when
they miss a syllable or hear a word incorrectly, says Donna Ellis,
head of Washington, D.C.'s efforts to improve acoustics in its
Also, the movement to mainstream hearing-impaired students into
regular classrooms means there are more pupils with lower baseline
auditory ability. And the increased incidence of middle-ear infections
means many more grade schoolers experience temporary hearing loss
at some point during the school year. "If in that time they
teach something like long division, you might miss something crucial,"
says David Lubman, an acoustical consultant in Westminster, Calif.
One of the fastest-growing school districts in the country, Clark
County, Nev., home to Las Vegas and 13 new schools a year, has
had stringent acoustical standards since the mid-1980s. The district
uses carpeting, suspended acoustical ceilings and walls that go
all the way to the roof deck to prevent sound from oozing from
one classroom to the next. But in many parts of the country, the
acoustical movement is only now starting to take place, in large
part advanced by new standards in construction and design guidelines.
Last year, the American National Standards Institute, a Washington
nonprofit that administers thousands of voluntary standards, approved
acoustical benchmarks to limit background noise and reverberation
in schoolhouses. The states of New York and Washington already
have similar sound standards. Los Angeles Unified School District,
in the middle of a $3.63 billion construction program, has acoustical
guidelines for its designers. And it's not just a U.S. movement.
The United Kingdom recently adopted standards on classroom noise,
and the World Health Organization devised its own guidelines for
nations to adopt.
"Acoustics are a critical factor now whenever you are looking
at classroom design," says Tim Dufault, principal at Cuningham
Group Architecture, a Minneapolis architecture firm.
The new standards have their critics, who say schools can't
afford to make every classroom as quiet as can be. And even the
staunchest supporters of creating adequate classroom sound acknowledge
it adds 0.5% to 2% to an overall construction budget -- at
a time when local governments are gushing red ink. But thanks
to an avalanche of funding measures passed by states and school
districts when times were good, schools are one of the few strong
spots in the construction industry.
"You have a combination of money already voted on, money
not yet spent, and new money that the public seems willing to
spend -- plus there's simply the pressure of more kids,"
says Paul Abramson, an educational consultant in Larchmont, N.Y.,
He predicts school-construction spending will stay near or above
$20 billion a year for at least the next few years.
The Burroughs Elementary School in Minneapolis, set to open this
fall, will be the first in that city to meet sound-quality targets
adopted for new construction in November 2001. Edward Kodet, the
architect on the project, says the goal is that the "student
who sits in the back can hear as well as the student who sits
in the front."
He has done things like add ceilings that slope from front
to back so sound "carries, but doesn't echo." The
footprint of the rooms, more trapezoid than rectangle, reduces
the tendency of sound to reverberate. In terms of materials, the
classrooms have double layers of sound-absorbing ceiling tiles,
insulated glass windows, and thicker walls where they abut raucous
spaces such as stairwells.
Some of the biggest noise culprits in schools are the more-robust
heating and air-conditioning systems required in many states for
indoor air quality -- exactly what spurred Minneapolis to think
"We had been doing a lot of HVAC [heating, ventilation,
air conditioning] renovations, and getting noisy systems that
drove us to where we needed to make acoustics a priority,"
says Lee Setter, environmental specialist for Minneapolis schools.
Such was the case at the Downtown School, a magnet facility in
Minneapolis. It was built in 1999 and immediately drew the ire
of teachers and parents because of the noise coming from its climate-control
system, combined with its open-classroom design. "Not everybody
can filter it out," says Lee Fertig, the school's director.
Modifications including larger walls, additional carpeting and
sound-absorbing panels, solved the problem. "The noise-interference
level went way down," says Mr. Fertig.
Clanging air conditioners are hardly the only problem. Sound
bleeds from one room to the next and from outside sources such
as highways and airplanes. One design strategy in the fight against
noise is to plug holes, as on a ship.
"Sound is like water," says Matt Ciaglo, an architect
with Fletcher Thompson Inc. in Hartford, Conn. "It finds
the smallest gap." As a matter of course, his firm uses soundproof
caulk along seams between drywall and the floor and adds sound-attenuation
blankets in the walls.
Further techniques include using different drywall thicknesses
-- one of them five-eighths of an inch, the other three-quarters
of an inch -- on either side of a wall. The two widths absorb
different sound frequencies and together prevent both low- and
high-pitched sounds from getting through. Also, staggering doors
in a hallway so classroom entrances aren't directly across from
each other and installing carpeting to reduce foot noise can reduce
If acoustic standards for schools were in place nationwide, the
additional spending could equal $100 million to $400 million a
year, based on current construction spending budgets. As it is,
the growing movement has a number of beneficiaries in industry.
Heating and air-conditioning manufacturers, already reaping the
benefits of indoor air-quality rules that require their products,
now have an additional service to sell -- keeping the equipment
muffled. "In all types of buildings, as you move to quieter
spaces, typically the cost does go up," says Gary Luepke,
applications engineer for Trane, a subsidiary of American Standard
Cos. that makes indoor climate-control systems.
Also, manufacturers of materials such as acoustic ceilings, carpets,
and sound absorbing insulation will see increased demand for their
wares. The Carpet and Rug Institute, an industry trade group,
puts acoustics at the top of the list in promoting its products
to schools. Armstrong World Industries Inc., Lancaster, Pa., has
set up an "acoustic calculator" to assist school designers
and architects in selecting its products.
The strongest opposition to the new standards comes from the
modular-classroom industry, which call them too onerous. "It's
not that we don't want quieter standards," says Susan Stewart,
a lobbyist for the modular-classroom industry in Sacramento, Calif.
"But the cost in some of these areas would be exorbitant."
Not all sound-abatement tactics are costly. Teachers in Washington
are known to put old tennis balls on the end of chair legs to
eliminate squeaking on the floor when students fidget at their
Final Comments (by Blake A. Engel, All Church Sound)
Isn't it interesting to read how schools have found the very same
issues churches struggle with? Room shape, construction materials,
construction methods, HVAC systems, isolation from outside noise,
and even room furnishings - these all are mentioned in this article,
which, if a few words were changed to "church" and "sanctuary"
could have been an article on church acoustics.
Notice that even the schools have trouble passing better acoustics
when it means only a 0.5% to 2% cost increase to the facility.
Churches are the same.
Notice that the modular classrooms industry responds in much
the same way small or portable churches respond - "It's not
that we don't want quieter standards, but the cost in some of
these areas would be exorbitant." Schools or churches built
next to railroad tracks or busy highways should never have been
allowed to build there in the first place...
As my associate Joseph De Buglio is quick to point out, the schools
have had many standards pushed on them since they hadn't done
anything on their own. Churches, if not careful, could have government
or state standards written and enforced if they don't come up
with their own standards first. Joseph has been working hard to
get some standards pulled together so churches have a starting
point. Churches have gone from some of the best places (acoustically)
to some of the worst places. We need to get on the ball and bring
these "worst places" up to par with where they should
A final thought to consider: If the local government is placing
so much attention on proper classroom acoustics, how much more
importance should we be placing on our church and sanctuary acoustics?