The invisible environment
Reports of budget cuts for school building programmes have left most teachers struggling away in the same old classroom environments. Many existing classrooms do not offer the best conditions for teaching in or learning. Our stock of existing classrooms might be tired and requiring attention, but they do not need to be second-rate environments. From an architect’s point of view, there are several areas, which can be addressed to improve the ‘human condition’ within each classroom. These are largely invisible considerations, being psychological and environmental. They can add immense value to a school by optimising classroom performance, focused specifically on teachers’ and pupils’ requirements, and they can be tailored on a budget. Instead of redecorating with the same old white paint and buying the usual furniture, this list of 10 ways to revitalise your classroom, presents a toolkit of coordinated ideas with which classrooms can be refurbished to make them efficient, stimulating and enjoyable places to develop in.
|Teachers are the heroes of the classroom and with a bit of attention the classroom environment can be revitalised to assist teaching and promote pupil's enthusiasm.|
Acoustic performance is a key consideration to the design performance of a classroom. A standard classroom might have a reverberation time of 1.2 seconds. This means the room might have a slight echo. The ambient noise might be slightly high and the teacher might sometimes need to speak up to be heard over the background interference. This can result in stress to the vocal cords and possible longer-term health issues. Speaking with acoustics expert Sharon Baker at Ecophon, the following considerations were noted:
- Is the classroom ceiling more than 2.8m high? This can add to unwanted echo.
- Is the last row of desks more than 9m from the teacher? Consonants frame and make speech, but have little energy and normal conversation decays rapidly beyond this distance.
- Is there noise and interference from outside the classroom, from the playground, the corridor or next door? Sound insulation might be a consideration.
- When working with children with a hearing impairment, sight impairment, autism, ADHD or where English is not their first language, greater sound absorption should be considered. Typically a reverberation time of 0.4 seconds is recommended.
Acoustics can be optimised to make classrooms more productive environments in the following ways:
|Considering acoustic treatment:|
1 Acoustic ceiling panels
2 High level acoustic wall panels
3 Cork and felt lined display boards
4 Sound proofing from outside activities
1 Soft surfaces
Teachers need to use the classroom to create fun and exciting learning environments. Wall space is important for display and in primary schools the classroom facilitates lots of different activities. Measures can be taken to promote these activities and improve the acoustic performance of the space:
- Lining the walls with large display panels. These can be made from MDF with a cork face, finished in felt. Cork has very good acoustic properties and can work as a versatile pin board for display.
- Covering hard flooring with carpet and underlay is effective for improving acoustic performance.
- Adding a rug, beanbag seats and soft coverings to areas like a reading corner contributes to acoustic performance and adds to the tactility of the room (which is made in point 10).
2 Acoustic panels
Acoustic panels are a very effective way of controlling noise levels in a classroom and are especially effective at high level:
- Acoustic ceiling panels allow lofty classroom spaces to remain high, keeping their sense of space. They can be designed to work with a lighting strategy (described in points 5 and 6), and can contribute to the quality of natural light in the classroom (made in points 3 and 9).
- Acoustic wall panels should also be considered where display space is not required. They should be applied to the front or back walls of the classroom (not the side walls).
Acoustic design might seem like a black art, but there are some simple checks that can be made on the performance of your classroom. With a smartphone decibel app, measure the noise levels during class. If the readings regularly peak at 65dB or above, consider acoustic treatment.
Budget for acoustic treatment approximately £2,500 to £3,500 + vat
Natural light is important for everyone’s psychological and physical well-being. It is a free resource and very valuable to classroom design for the following reasons:
- Windows allow light in and also offer views out. This is important because it makes the classroom feel larger than it actually is and pupils do not feel claustrophobic.
- Natural light is dynamic and always changing. This helps to maintain a lively and attentive atmosphere in the classroom, compared to static, electric lighting.
- Where possible natural light from above should be considered. Roof lights are 2.5 times more effective than windows at bringing natural light in to rooms. North lights are especially advantageous for bringing diffused natural light in, without direct sunlight or glare and can allow views to the sky.
However, there are disadvantages to natural light. Direct sunlight and glare is the main problem, especially in summer. It can be disruptive to teaching and also contribute to overheating. By comparison, low level sunlight (with less energy) in winter afternoons can bring useful sun light and heat, deep in to the classroom. Natural light can be controlled to make classrooms more enjoyable environments in the following ways:
3 Natural light control
External louvres work best and should be considered because:
- They prevent direct sunlight from reaching the window, thereby lowering the chance of overheating and glare.
- Where windows have overhead lights, positioning external louvres below these can help bounce valuable light in to the classroom at high level.
- Designing them to work with the sun’s seasonal angles can benefit from the ingress of low winter sun.
The ceiling and the wall opposite the window should be a light colour to reflect as much natural light as possible around the room (which relates to points 6 and 9).
Solar films applied to the exterior face of the window to control direct sunlight are often considered an economic solution, but they obscure views out from the classroom. They can also scratch over time, and reduce the general light transmission of the window.
Solar control blinds to the inside of the window can assist to reduce glare:
- Roller blinds with darker colours work best because they transmit less light compared to lighter colours.
- A 3% open area to the weave is recommended to prevent glare and offer views through to the outside.
- Dropping the bottom rail to a height of about 1.2m above the floor in the summer allows pupils to still have clear views out when working at their tables.
Solar control roller blinds can be used ‘back to back’ with blackout blinds, to enable light levels to be lowered for use of projectors.
4 Rooflights and North light
Where possible, consider north lights for your classroom. Although this might appear an expensive design move, it could transform the characteristics of your teaching environment for the better, and considerably reduce your reliance on electric lighting. Options include clear Velux windows, translucent lights insulated with aerogel, and light-pipes.
Budget for natural light controls approximately £2,500 to £6,000 + vat
Electric Lighting Design
To supplement natural light, the lighting design of a classroom needs also to consider electric lighting as part of an integrated strategy. Natural light saves energy and helps the vibrancy of the class with gently changing light levels. Electric lighting by comparison is usually constant. To help maintain the energy and vitality of a productive classroom environment, the following points might be considered when establishing an electric lighting design strategy:
|Electric lighting strategy:|
1 Main lights offer even distribution of light
2 Some illumination of the ceiling adds a sense of space
3 Lighting to assist specific activities or displays
5 Light fittings
The recommended lighting levels for a standard classroom are 300 lux. Recommendations for classroom lighting include:
- The main light fittings should be set out to give an even distribution of light across working surfaces.
- It is advantageous for the main fittings to give some light wash to the ceiling, to help add to the sense of space.
- To supplement the main lighting and add flexibility to the lighting strategy, it is worth considering a secondary set of light fittings that can highlight special activity areas or display walls etc.
- Light fittings should be selected and positioned so that they do not cause glare or shadows, with the light source as inconspicuous as possible.
- With combinations of fittings, it is important not to create too much light contrast across adjacent areas, which could cause eyestrain, headaches or fatigue. Lighting design needs to create a balance to the classroom space to assist its sense of buoyancy and activity.
- The colour temperatures of all the light fittings should preferably be the same, and full spectrum if possible.
There is a growing market for good quality light fittings and considerable advances have been made with LED lighting technologies. As a result, there is a lot to choose from between new LED and older fluorescent luminaires, which are usually cheaper but still good quality and economical to run.
6 Controls and context
Depending upon budget, lighting controls can make a useful contribution to the atmosphere and environment within a classroom. For a cost, your lighting strategy can include a programmable control system, which will allow you to finely tune the lighting environment. Although controls can be expensive, the general cost is falling with some companies specialising in retro-fitting controls in to rooms without having to rewire existing lighting circuits. Daylight dimming is also a possibility, with reduced electric lighting when natural levels permit.
To make a lighting design strategy come to life, and to assist the working environment of the classroom, it is important to consider the context in which light works. Ceilings and walls should preferably be a near-white to reflect as much light as possible around the room. Light colours are much more effective at redirecting light in a room as dark colours (point 9).
Budget for lighting and controls approximately £4,500 to £9,000 + vat
Typically existing school classrooms have a high degree of glazing. Although this is good for natural light, it can prove problematic for overheating in the summer and excessive heat loss in the winter. Speaking with Malcolm Orme at AECOM, the following points should be considered when addressing a classroom’s ventilation and heating strategy:
- Good ventilation can help to control overheating and improve the indoor air quality.
- If the classroom has an overheating problem during summer, the area of glass can be reduced or other solar control added (point 3) and the ventilation provision increased to remove excess heat.
- Turning off unused equipment and electric lighting costs nothing and also helps to lessen overheating and save energy and money.
- Natural ventilation may often be the most practical solution: Vents can be added, some of which should ideally be positioned at high level to encourage the air to mix before it circulates to working level. Such vents are usually part of the window glazing system.
- Natural ventilation provided by vents and opening windows should have a total ‘free area’ of at least 5% of the floor area of the classroom to be most effective. This should be equally split between low and high level to work best.
Malcolm added that the types of system available for a new build school are generally also available for a classroom retrofit. Ventilation can be improved in the following ways:
|Ventilating the classroom:|
1 High level ventilation grilles
2 Cross ventilation with grilles or openable windows on both sides of the classroom
3 Heat from radiators tempers air as it comes in
7 Types of ventilation panel
Ventilation panels can be sized and retrofitted in to existing window openings to improve the ventilation performance of your classroom. There are several options to consider, depending upon budget and the environmental requirements of the room:
- The simplest and cheapest solution is to use the high level opening windows in your classroom, if you have them.
- Secure ventilation panels can remain open over night in the summer to allow classrooms to be cool and comfortable for the following morning. They usually have a set of fixed louvres to the outside face. Schools built with a high thermal mass (i.e. made with lots of concrete and brick), might benefit from night-time ventilation which is when the building cools down.
- Ventilation panels can have an insulated door on the inside, which helps retain the heat in the classroom when closed in winter.
- If noise from the outside is an issue, ventilation panels can be specified with acoustic louvres to help reduce this problem.
8 Cross ventilation
Cross ventilation is the most effective way to circulate fresh air in to your classroom. Typically, side ventilation only works up to a room depth of 6m. It is worth investigating to see if cross ventilation is applicable to your situation, based on these points:
- The inlet and outlet walls should have total ventilation openings equivalent to 5% of the classroom floor area.
- If inlet and outlet vents are at the same height, cross ventilation works when wind hits the school building and set up a pressure difference between the windward and leeward faces of the school building.
- If inlet and outlet vents are at different heights, cross ventilation is assisted by thermal buoyancy as well as the wind.
- The distance the air has to travel should be no more than five times the height of the room.
Budget for ventilation grilles approximately £4,000 + vat
Colour has a direct relationship with energy use. Black materials absorb 20 times more natural light energy than white, and gains heat in the process. Light colours generally make a room look bigger and dark colours normally make a room look smaller. Choice of colour also plays a significant role in the psychological balance of a classroom environment. Angela Wright, Colour Psychologist at Colour Affects has formulated sets of colour that harmonise together and can be used to encourage peoples’ behavioural patterns within buildings. Her Type 1 Colours are particularly applicable for classroom environments because they instil a buoyant, active atmosphere.
Points to consider when using colour in your classroom:
- Don’t use white because it is too harsh. Instead the Type 1 colours have a set of near-whites that are much more gentle on the eye, and work well with lighting strategies. One match is Dulux Timeless, used in the art studio project, shown above.
- It is recommended to keep the main surfaces of a classroom, walls and ceiling a light or near-white colour, so to keep the room feeling calm.
- Other Type 1 colours might be used to highlight or add emphasis to specific areas of a classroom. These might include the carpet, the wall behind the white board, the chairs or furnishings to areas like a reading corner or computer terminals etc. These areas will then stand out as clear and distinct zones in the classroom environment.
- Angela noted that blue is the prime learning colour, intellectual in its effect. Strong blues can help to focus the mind and soft blues aid concentration. The optimum learning colour scheme might be a dominant blue with a secondary yellow, or the other way round for variation.
- Do keep it simple, but a classroom space should never be a single colour. We all need a balance of wavelengths.
Within the wider school context, Type 1 colours can also be used to identify subject areas and departments in secondary schools. For example, blue for science, purple for R.E., yellow for maths and orange for the lunchtime canteen etc.
|Dulux timeless reads as white within a room but is not as harsh on the eye|
Budget to paint a classroom approximately £700 + vat
Ergonomic considerations are important to the comfort of pupils and their ability to learn, but it is not just about purchasing quality furniture. With a bit of planning the classroom environment can be designed to help capture childrens’ imagination on a budget.
Teachers know best how to set out their classroom and manage their class, but here are some thoughts on how this might be done with ergonomic input:
- Chairs, desks and tables all need to be of the right size for the children and work together.
- Especially in primary schools, furniture, fixtures and fittings can be selected to make a classroom feel more home-like and cosy. Moving away from a hard institutional feel can help pupils to feel more comfortable and relax in to their work. Soft finishes also assists acoustic performance (made in point 1 above).
- Simplicity is key. Clearly differentiate areas with colour (point 9) and materials such as flooring or furniture coverings.
- A classroom space can be tactile and sensory. Differences in light (points 3 and 5) and reflection add interest and enjoyment to the classroom environment.
Sensory experiences are believed to help learning and develop our perceptions. We explore, discriminate and interpret reality through our senses, which assists in the process of constructing and processing our knowledge. Stimulating environments are key.
|Reading nooks, book cases and ladders to explore|
Budget for soft finishes, and new furniture approximately £500 to £1,850 + vat
Putting it all together
These points are intended to promote some focused thought and discussion about existing classroom design. If you are considering any work to the school, please bare them in mind, and be conscious of the effect of ‘adding to’ the classroom's working environment uncoordinated additions. The approximate budget rates, when added together may seem a bit high, but making a significant difference might only require implementing a few of these ideas. An approach could be to trial a change in one classroom and then roll these refurbishments out over the rest of the school, once the benefits have been proven and as the budget allows.
Should you wish to discuss any of these points in greater detail or request assistance putting together a comprehensive design strategy for classroom refurbishment, please do not hesitate to contact DesignBox Architecture.