By Sean O’Donnell AIA, LEED AP, Principal, Perkins Eastman, and Geoffrey Sparks INCE, LEED AP, Senior Associate, Cerami & Associates
21st-century School Design has fully embraced sustainability. The marks of a modern education—creativity, critical thinking, communication, and character—so fully engage the central ideas of sustainable design, from conservation to health and wellness to broad integration across a curriculum for future stewardship, that it is difficult not to design a sustainable, high-performance school today.
For example, we know that learning occurs not only in the traditional, formal settings of a school—classrooms and labs—but also that much is learned outside of the classroom, in informal settings and from one’s peers. The sustainability movement has complemented and enhanced this idea, raising the profile and value, from an educational standpoint, of gardens, green roofs, and even mechanical rooms as meaningful settings for children to learn.
Within this system of settings, 21st-century education is becoming more active and collaborative. Our education spaces must readily allow for multiple modes of learning, which requires consideration of many interrelated elements—light, space, furniture, thermal comfort, air quality, technology, color, display, and acoustics, among them—in order to provide a proper and inspiring setting for learning today.
Take the acoustical environment, for instance. In its simplest form, a good classroom environment is one optimized for excellent speech communication, especially important for young students and non-native-language speakers as the ability to hear is directly related to classroom engagement. A successful acoustic environment considers three factors:
- Sound isolation: The appropriate level of sound isolation considers the adjacent spaces and construction types of the walls, floors, ceiling, windows, and doors in order to minimize external distractions.
- Mechanical system noise: Mechanical system noise should be minimized so that the instructor and students can clearly hear one another.
- Room finishes: The use of acoustically absorptive finishes will limit the build-up of noise by controlling the reverberation time.
The media center at Dunbar Senior High School in Washington, DC, also features a glass curtain wall that allows outside views and admits natural light. Sound absorptive materials such as carpet tile help with acoustical control in the active space. Rendering courtesy of Perkins Eastman/Moody Nolan.
Zoning the Campus
We can zone a campus acoustically by the expectation of the sound generated by the activity and the tolerance for background noise. For example, at Dunbar Senior High School in Washington, DC, a double-height entry space is the physical and social center of the building. The literal buzz generated by students passing through, eating in the adjoining food court, and informally gathering there theoretically could disrupt other, more formal learning activities occurring throughout the building. However, by organizing the campus so that the more sensitive and quiet spaces are not directly adjacent to and can be physically separated from this activity, this space achieves its vision as the “Heart of the School.”
Designing the Instructional Space
At Dunbar, the academic wing features a combination of administrative, classroom, and lab spaces to provide an integrated educational experience. On each of the four academic floors, the primary instructional spaces are optimized for presentations, small-group and individual activity, and audiovisual use through the following measures:
- Acoustically absorptive ceiling tiles cover the entire ceiling to ensure a low reverberation time in the classrooms.
- Classrooms are buffered from one another through the strategic placement of storage and small mechanical rooms that house the building’s individual water source heat pumps.
- Mechanical spaces placed behind storage rooms ensure that fan noise from the heat pumps themselves do not reach classrooms.
Creating Effective Extended Learning Environments
“Extended learning environments” are spaces often adjacent to classrooms and labs, including circulation space, that are intended for small group activities to complement work occurring within the more formal spaces. Upgraded laminated glass provides the necessary sound isolation to acoustically separate the more formal areas from the extended learning areas yet visually connect to the primary classrooms so teachers can engage the students.
At the recently completed Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia, informal learning spaces visually connect to the landscape outside—but muffle street noise to keep the focus on learning. Photo: ©Sarah Mechling, Perkins Eastman.
Designing the Public Spaces
Gyms, theaters, and media centers also have their own specific internal acoustical demands, but today’s educational and sustainability goals often prioritize more visual connectivity to the exterior and interior of the school than in previous generations of buildings. For example, Dunbar’s new theater—capable of hosting lectures, theater, and musical performances for the school and the surrounding community—was designed with a glass curtain wall at the back of the stage that admits natural light and views to the community, reflecting its joint-use, multipurpose nature. This window system has a high sound isolation rating (Sound Transmission Class or STC ) that limits the amount of exterior noise entering the auditorium and the amount of noise escaping the auditorium from loud events such as a stage band concert.
It is important to note also that music classrooms are located adjacent to the theater and away from the main classroom wing. To mitigate the greater noise levels generated by instrument and choral rehearsal, additional sound isolation measures include double stud partitions, entry vestibules, and floating floors. In addition, absorptive and diffusive panels are located on the walls and ceilings to optimize the acoustic environment.
The theater at Dunbar Senior High School in Washington, DC, was designed with a glass curtain wall at the back of the stage to connect to the community and admit natural light. Carpet tile contributes to a high sound isolation rating, so the theater is able to keep outside noise out and theater “noise” in—resulting in an enhanced acoustic environment. Rendering courtesy of Perkins Eastman/Moody Nolan.
As we look to the future, we have the understanding, the materials, and the tools to create truly high-performance learning environments. Enhanced acoustics will allow everyone to engage in the conversation.