Designing New Schools Requires an Ear for Sound Management

Sound-diffusing panels at HSPVA help distribute sound in the school's theater.

The new schools built under HISD’s 2012 bond program will be designed not only to look good, but sound good as well.

“Acoustics have a major impact on the learning environment,” said Dan Bankhead, HISD’s general manager for facilities design. “We want to minimize any distracting noises that make it harder for students and staff to do their work.”

The connection between sound and academic success is underscored by research showing students can miss as much as 25 percent of what the teacher is saying in classrooms with excessive noise. The problem is worse for students with limited English proficiency or hearing loss.

“We need acoustics to be an important part of the design of the new school,” said Davis High School Principal Richard Barajas. “The research is clear.”

Under the $1.89 billion bond program, the district will build or renovate 40 buildings, including 29 high schools. The work will give the district an opportunity to transform schools with noisy spaces into facilities that manage sound in a more deliberate way.

Some strategies make common sense, such as placing gymnasiums or auditoriums at the periphery of schools, away from classrooms. When designing a band practice room, architects will take into consideration the impact music will have on nearby spaces.

That could mean using ceiling tiles, acoustical foams or fabric-wrapped wall panels to reduce the ambient noise levels, according to Ryan Colton, a technical sales representative for Acoustical Solutions, a Virginia-based company that specializes in soundproofing and noise-control products.

Other strategies include trying to minimize the transfer of sound from the exterior into the interior, Bankhead said. So if a school is near a highway, architects will look at how the school is placed on the site, as well as building materials.  

“Quieter air conditioning equipment, lighting fixtures, and other devices will also be selected for the new facilities to help improve the quality of indoor environment,” Bankhead said.

Generally, the goal among school architects and interior designers is to manage the acoustics within a building or room with layouts and materials that block, absorb or redirect sound.

“Sound is energy,” said Greg Louviere, an associate principal at PBK architects, one of the nation’s leading architectural firms for K-12 schools. The only way to do it is to find some way for the energy to stop, or to lose it somewhere else.”

In a cafeteria or multipurpose space, that could mean hanging acoustical panels to help absorb noise. In common areas, designers may look at using soft flooring or upholstery materials to minimize reverberation, according to Darrick Jahn, a PBK associate.

“You’re trying to keep the noise from bouncing around,” he said.

Barajas said the commons area in his current school is so loud, holding events there is almost impossible without affecting the entire school. In the new facility, he’s hoping for a well-designed gathering space that minimizes distracting sounds.

Noise control is only one aspect of acoustics. Across the country, school districts are increasingly looking at ways to amplify sound in classrooms. Statistics show that half of all teachers have voice problems at some time during their careers because of the strain caused by projecting for prolonged periods.

Solutions include adding sound-enhancement systems to minimize voice strain.  “Sound carries information,” Louviere said. “The clearer the information, the easier it is to receive it.”