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Why make all the noise about acoustics

Global studies related to schools have proved how excessive noise and poor room acoustics are impediments to effective learning, says Paul Schwarz

| | Apr 13, 2015 | 3:44 pm
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 – By Paul Schwarz

I’m sure you can easily imagine being in a critical business briefing or meeting and only being able to understand half of what is being said. Many of us have experienced this in the UAE at some point for a variety of reasons. What are the chances you were able to contribute to the discussion in a meaningful way, or were worried about being able to meet your client’s expectations with the project deliverables after you left the room.

This is an unacceptable situation in business and our everyday ‘grown-up’ lives, so why do we not expect, or demand, the same for our children within their learning environments. After all, do we not believe that the quality of their education is a critical part of their life-development? Isn’t that why we are all willing to pay very generous fees to the international schools who are promising ‘the very best’ quality education money can buy?

Paul Schwarz

Paul Schwarz

In the commercial world, if this lack of understanding is a regular occurrence, the problem either is fixed quickly or the company loses business; it’s as simple as that. If it is a language problem, then either the client’s representative is replaced or ‘relocated’. If it is a problem with the location, then a new venue is found.

However, in educational buildings it is not a case of the teacher not being able to communicate – teachers in the UAE are among the best communicators in the world. The majority have many years’ experience before they come to the Emirates. It is also not simply a case of relocating to another room or building. With schools regularly over-subscribed in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, spare rooms are hard to come by.

Studies recently completed in Europe, the United States and Australia have all concluded that there are an alarmingly large number of classrooms within schools right across the fee-spectrum that have very poor acoustics and where excessive noise and poor room acoustics are impediments to effective learning. It is a big problem and one that has been identified as immediately requiring serious consideration and solutions if we are to improve educational standards, especially as the number of children per class continues to grow and as school budgets are increasingly put under pressure.

A typical classroom will have hard flooring; it needs to be easily cleanable in case of spills and hard-wearing due to excessive use. Walls need to be able to take regular impact from jackets, bags, equipment and various other ‘projectiles’. Furniture must be hard-wearing, durable and easy to move; so that leaves the ceiling as one of the very few areas available for acoustic treatment, which is also the only space for essential fire- and life-safety monitoring and fire-fighting services as well as adequate lighting.

It is for this exact reason that the United Kingdom, United States and Australia have developed mandatory acoustic design codes. There is a strict regimen of commission and testing of rooms and common spaces by law, before the school is allowed to open and commence operation.

These regulations govern everything from the maximum noise levels of air-conditioning in individual classrooms to the quality of walls separating corridors and rooms from one another, and to the maximum reverberation time (the length of time it takes for a sound to die in a closed space) for almost every typical room in a school building. These regulations place a big emphasis on ensuring a good quality learning environment is provided for every child in every school. It also emphasises the greater need for this quality of design for children with learning difficulties – where the need for such attention is magnified many times over.

The good news is that these regulations have now been adopted by the Municipal governments of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. As of January 1, 2014, it is now also mandatory for all new school developments to comply with UK Building Bulletin ’93 (BB93), which sets out minimum design and performance standards for acoustics in all buildings used for educational purposes, not just schools.

However, there seems to be a delay in the adoption of these standards by school developers and architects in the UAE, either simply because they are unaware of their responsibilities to ensure this code is adhered to, or they are aware of it but, disturbingly, decide to take their chances that the local authorities will not check that the appropriate studies have been included in the design process, and so chose to save time and money by ‘value engineering’ this step out of the project.

There are a number of qualified acoustic engineering consultancies based in Dubai and Abu Dhabi who are well placed to advise architectural and development teams on the specific details. Perhaps it is time we expected, or demanded, the same standards of our children’s schools as we do with our professional environments.

The writer is Senior Partner and Principal Acoustic Engineer at Design Confidence Acoustics, and the Chairman of the Middle East Acoustic Engineering Society (MEAS). He can be contacted at pschwarz@designconfidence.com

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