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Managing Acoustics in Educational Spaces: Design Considerations

Interior spaces need acoustics managed by design based on the function of the space. Schools and hospitals have special needs to decrease ambient noise and enhance speech intelligibility.

Noise from exterior or adjoining spaces travels through ductwork, lowered ceiling tiles, windows, or other elements that allow sound waves to travel. Design elements that reduce ambient noise are those that absorb or disrupt the paths of sound waves. An example of the principle is noise from a window. If the window is open, noise from outside is loudest; with the window closed, noise is muffled but still can be heard. With the addition of heavy shades or curtains, the outside noise is suppressed almost entirely.  Structural and interior design elements in a school or educational space also seek to block the transmission of sound waves, and decrease external and distracting noise.

If sources of sound transmission can be identified, their noise can be reduced at the source. For example, if hard surface flooring is causing significant noise, which in a school would occur with changes of classes, several flooring choices that are also easy to manage and that reduce noise might be a better option. An example is insulated hard vinyl flooring, which has a sound absorbing core but the ease of cleaning of hard flooring surfaces. If ductwork is transmitting sound, normal insulation would be a reasonable first step.

There are several design options for reducing sound transmission that are portable, and can be used to rearrange designated spaces. Various insulated panels made of a sound absorbing core and finished with fabric, acoustic tile, or wood can be used either to allow space to be rearranged or used on walls in areas of increased sound transmission. A fabric or wood covered panel in a classroom can also do duty as artwork display, bulletin boards, or something similar.

Sound transmission through windows can be managed with insulated blinds. Any blind with an interior space or substrate will reduce sound. Many can also allow ambient light to penetrate while still reducing sound transmission. Blinds can also allow teachers the option of communicating quiet time to a classroom.

In educational spaces, the ability to reduce ambient noise and hear the spoken word is critical for a space to function properly. The design plan should include both reducing transmission sources for ambient sound, and incorporating insulated and sound absorbing materials into the space that can be rearranged.


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