Classroom Acoustics: What Are Texas Architects Saying?
Sandra B. King, AuD, CCC-A
The topic of classroom acoustics has been studied for several decades, and
the importance of providing students with acoustically good classrooms has been
increasingly recognized around the nation. Movements like the Collaborative for
High Performance Schools (CHPS) and professional societies such as ASHA and the
Acoustical Society of America (ASA) have attempted to educate audiologists and
the public about a national standard and policy that would benefit all children
receiving instruction in classrooms. Similar to the start of another universal
program (newborn hearing screening) and another accessibility guideline
(teletypewriters [TTYs] for hard of hearing telephone users), the classroom
acoustics initiative has had its proponents and opponents. It is hoped that
collaboration with all stakeholders will increase the awareness and motivation
needed to get leaders who are involved in school building to provide children
with quiet classrooms that meet a national standard of performance. The
ultimate success of a national classroom acoustics standard will depend on how
well the recommendations it sets forth are followed. The standard, which has
been approved by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), is currently
known as ANSI/ASA S12.60-2010/Part 1 American National Standard Acoustical
Performance Criteria, Design Requirements, and Guidelines for Schools—Part 1:
Permanent Schools; the standard is offered as a free
download through the ASA.
As a capstone
project [PDF], 64 architects in Texas responsible for school design were
surveyed about their knowledge of acoustical performance criteria for the
classroom, the practices they employed to address acoustics in the design and
renovation phases, and their attitudes regarding the earlier published version
of the ANSI standard (ANSI S12.60-2002). Comments from the architects are
What is at stake in the
Acoustic barriers to communication in the classroom
are disruptive to learning, affecting speech perception, student behavior, and
educational outcomes for students. Acoustic barriers in classrooms include
excessive background noise and reverberation. Background noise can originate
from internal sources (heating and air conditioning, plumbing, electrical, or
other mechanical devices) or external sources (vehicles outside or noise coming
from spaces adjacent to the classroom). Reverberation is sound that persists in
an enclosed space due to reflecting off, rather than being absorbed by,
surfaces within the room.
Acoustic barriers affect everyone's auditory
perception ability. The most significant negative effect of poor classroom
acoustics is on children with hearing loss, auditory processing disorders, or
learning disabilities, as well as students learning English as a second
language. Children spend around 45% of their classroom time listening to
instruction from their teacher, yet there is no assurance that the teacher's
voice is adequately heard.
Who oversees and enforces classroom
The U.S. Access Board is an independent federal
agency working toward accessibility for everyone. The board develops and
maintains design criteria for building environments, such as classrooms, among
its activities. It also provides technical assistance and training on these
requirements and on accessible design. The board enforces accessibility
standards that cover federally funded facilities through the Department of
Justice. To facilitate compliance, the board works with building code
developers and standard-setting groups such as ANSI.
however, cannot require school districts to comply with the national standard
for classroom acoustics at this time because acoustic performance criteria for
a classroom are not referenced in the Architectural Barriers Act. This
voluntary standard has been adopted into building code by some but not all
states and school districts.
Are Texas architects confident
about designing classrooms with good acoustics?
approached the survey expressing varying levels of confidence in answering
questions on acoustics. The architects surveyed had been designing classrooms
for 2–44 years, with about 22 years of experience on average. Architects who
appeared more confident discussing acoustics were newer to the field, from
larger firms, or owners of firms. It was interesting to learn how the
architects approached designing a classroom with good acoustics when they had
limited control over design choices, such as when school districts had
different priorities on where to spend financial resources. Some school
districts were interested in spending money on new athletic venues rather than
on following architectural suggestions to improve buildings for academics. When
acoustics were addressed in planning in the district's design phase, it was
often only for performance areas (band rooms or auditoriums) or challenging
areas (cafeterias or gymnasiums). Some architects, except for a few following
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) or CHPs guidelines, did
not see classrooms as a priority for acoustics and never checked the rooms to
see whether they were within guidelines. It was disappointing to hear one
architect state that he preferred to be more of a generalist and would delegate
acoustics to an acoustic engineer. And surprisingly, another stated that
acoustics was not an exact science!
The following are collective
responses from the 64 educational architects across the state of Texas
regarding classroom acoustics:
- Practically all architects were
aware that classroom acoustics could affect a child's perception of speech,
language development, or reading ability.
- Less than one third
understood that a normal hearing adult was not able to accurately judge whether
classroom acoustics were appropriate for a child developing speech.
- One third of the architects were aware of the national ANSI standard for
classroom acoustics. Several asked for the name of the standard to be repeated
so they could make note of it.
- About one fifth said they referred to
the standard while designing schools. A few others referred to LEED criteria
that resemble but don't meet the national standards criteria and don't include
- One architect commented that he made use of a
sound level meter to measure noise within school buildings.
if an acoustic consultant was employed it was for performance areas such as
auditoriums and band rooms or large rooms such as gymnasiums and cafeterias.
Only four of the architects ever requested that the acoustic performance of a
classroom be measured.
- One half of the architects reported their
training in acoustic design for classrooms was obtained through practical work
experience, one third relied on in-services offered by manufacturers, and a
couple chose classroom acoustics as a topic of study for continuing
- More than 80% reported that they relied on published sound
transmission ratings of materials to prevent noise travel between adjacent
- More than two thirds of the architects had responded to school
district complaints of unwanted noise due to reverberation; building service
design; poor building quality; cutting corners on building materials, which
resulted in noise transfer; material choices made for easier maintenance, which
affected acoustics; and older buildings that were not up to current codes.
- Some of the architects turned to "reinforcement without construction," which
means the use of sound-field amplification in the classroom without considering
reduction of reverberation or current noise problems, such as heating and
ventilation noise, within the room.
- Only four of the architects ever
verified that classroom acoustics were appropriate. Those architects who
verified said that only some of the seating positions allowed children to hear
the teacher's voice adequately.
- When asked whether a portion of
Federal money provided to schools should be used to check and fix classroom
acoustics, more than half said yes. Supporters of this position believed it
would be beneficial for academics in general and that federal funding would be
necessary for more depressed regions of Texas unable to fund this on their own.
The architects in support of this federal funding said that the funds would
have to be specified for classroom acoustics. The architects said that they did
not make decisions on how to spend money in the school, but rather districts
made the final decision. The architects who were in opposition to federal
resources felt that general contractors and building services professionals or
districts needed to be held responsible for poor building practices that
affected acoustic conditions.
- Three fourths of the architects were not
opposed to the ANSI standard becoming the building code and agreed that
acoustics were important. Some architects questioned how a code would be
enforced. Architects who were opposed to the standard stated that there should
be less government intervention in building design and gave examples of how the
code system was in conflict with itself.
Why should we be
so concerned about classroom acoustics?
Our country is seeing
increasing numbers of immigrant children with limited English proficiency
entering the public school system. Children are being identified with hearing
impairments at very young ages. Many kids who use hearing aids, cochlear
implants, and auditory-oral communication are entering mainstream classrooms.
All students, especially those with disabilities or other challenges, need good
Are classroom acoustics better when
architects design classrooms?
The Texas architects' comments
and opinions revealed that they were concerned with acoustics in their
buildings. They held school districts accountable for what they as architects
were able to accomplish in planning and design based on compliance with the
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility guidelines and Texas
Education Agency rules, as well as the district's budget and choices made by
the district for design preference and environmental maintenance.
the bidding process for school (re)design, the district assesses what needs to
be done and how many dollars are available. Builders who can meet the
district's budget offer a proposal, the winning bid is selected and the
designing begins. School districts are constantly trying to stretch bond
dollars, while others do not even have them. For school districts with budget
constraints, replacing leaky roofs and other necessary repairs take precedence.
Others are trying to get an old school into compliance with current ADA
accessibility guidelines. Still others choose to use extra funding for
auditoriums and stadiums rather than on improving classroom environments for
How can audiologists help to improve
Communicate. Be familiar
with the ANSI standard and the ADA accessibility guidelines or other standards
used in your state. Get this information out to your school district at school
board meetings or to a facility planner for the district. Involve teachers or
parents who also have concerns. ASHA has a new brochure called "The Noisy
Classroom" that is written for non-audiologists and is perfect for
Parent-Teacher Association presentations.
Some school districts are
following guidelines from organizations like CHPS or LEED to earn a
certification for their buildings. Some of the criteria in these guidelines
attempt to emulate the ANSI national standard but fall short of meeting it, and
these differences should be made apparent to districts, hopefully before
Verify. Evidence can speak for itself.
The ANSI national standard for classroom acoustics includes conformance testing
in its guidelines. While testing is not required, it does give evidence that
the criteria are being met, and it must be done for points earned on the Texas
CHPS Designed Scorecard to earn the CHPS certification.
Annex A of the
ANSI national standard describes the procedures used in conformance testing,
and audiologists should be familiar with how to perform the background noise
level measurements. In addition to conformance testing, speech-language
pathologists and audiologists could gather information by objective measures of
student auditory perception and subjective behavioral observations made by the
Audiologists should introduce themselves to school
administrators and offer to educate them as well as teachers and parents on
appropriate classroom acoustics. Simple sound level measures without the need
to call in a consultant might help identify acoustic problems in a less costly
and efficient manner.
Unless a school district voluntarily measures
classroom acoustics and records noise and reverberation data, there is no
evidence that classrooms meet the ANSI criteria demonstrated to be necessary
for children to perceive speech.
Educate. There are
ways to improve speech delivery in the classroom. Consult with districts,
school speech-language pathologists, and teachers regarding the use of
sound-field amplification (with an explanation on reverberation), multimedia
devices, closed-captioning, variable seating arrangements, and room décor.
Educate them regarding frequency spectrum changes when raising the voice and
about voice disorders.
The best time to collaborate with districts is
when they are considering building a new school or taking on renovations.
Educational architects and school administrators would rather get classroom
acoustics right the first time than fix problems later on with costly remedies.
Perhaps if audiologists initiate education programs for local districts that
include information on the importance of good acoustics for learning, improving
noisy classrooms, sampling noise levels, and reverberation in current
classrooms, we will soon see better classroom learning environments.
About the Author
Sandra B. King is an audiologist living in Texas
and has two children enrolled in elementary school. She completed her audiology
doctorate degree in May 2010 through an off-campus program offered by Central
Classroom Acoustics Resources webpage