Medway Library, United Kingdom
We all want the best for our children, whatever their aptitude or ability.
We want them to grow up happily, to become confident and respectful adults and, not least, to realise their academic potential. That agenda of academic achievement is all about making sure that the whole learning environment is the best it can be, because a good school is more than the quality of its management or the dedication of its teachers – however important those aspects are. Increasingly, issues of academic quality are being reflected in new ways of designing schools and educational establishments – embracing a new design philosophy that recognises that everyone, school pupils included, are products of their wider environment and that the architecture and interior design of schools should enhance the ability to learn.
At the cutting edge of this philosophy are new school designs where there are no clear demarcations between instructional and social spaces, where lines of authority – between teacher and pupil are unclear – and with spaces that are softer, more human and infinitely more inspirational. It’s a concept where school pupils are treated as individuals rather than just children, and which puts the human instinct of the school community at the heart of that building’s design. It’s effectively turning traditional concepts of form and function on their head, to design buildings that encourage freedom of thought.
Design and Learning
That, of course, is all very well for new school projects able to build from the ground upwards and incorporate the latest in architectural thinking. But for all schools, regardless of age and design, there are many other practical ways of driving the learning process and, perhaps surprisingly, one of them is carpet. It sounds unlikely, but science and technology are now able to demonstrate that carpet can, and does, have beneficial educational benefits. The reason? Schools are often noisy and, with all those feet churning up dust from the floor, can suffer from poor air quality.
Taking air quality first, the air that we breathe indoors has been named and shamed as one of the biggest health risks of the modern world, now recognized by educationalists as being of particular concern in the school environment. The statistics are alarming. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that, in 2005 alone, some 250,000 people died from asthma worldwide. It remains the most common chronic disease in children, and its incidence is increasing. Internationally, there are some 300 million sufferers. In the developed world, up to one in 11 children has asthma. In the UK, for example, a child is admitted to hospital every 17 minutes because of their asthma. (1) The prevalence of asthma symptoms and diagnosed asthma in Canada and the United States is amongst the highest in the world for both children and adults. It is estimated that there are 35.5 million sufferers, with a mean prevalence of 11.2%
The prevalence of diagnosed asthma and asthma symptoms have increased markedly over recent decades. For example, in the United States the prevalence of diagnosed asthma and asthma symptoms in children and adolescents has been reported to have increased by 25-75% per decade during the period since 1960.
Improving Air Quality
Many schools now have asthma management plans in place to ensure that there is access to inhalers at all times, that staff are aware of what to do in an emergency and have received adequate training – and know how to minimise children’s exposure to asthma triggers. According to the WHO, the most important risk factor for an asthma attack is the inhalation of substances and particles that may provoke allergic reactions or irritate the airways. It’s long been recognised that carpeting can improve indoor air quality by capturing and holding allergen-causing substances tightly and, as a result, keeping them from becoming airborne, and therefore minimizing their circulation in the breathing zone. (2)
At DESSO, we’ve now gone a significant step further by launching a next-generation carpet that captures even more harmful material from the air – specifically designed to meet the requirements of today’s classrooms, and address the very real problems faced by asthmatics. Independent tests have confirmed that AirMaster® is eight times more effective in capturing and retaining fine dust than hard flooring – and four times more effective than standard carpeting (3) - and therefore able to make a very real difference, particularly in high-traffic areas where lots of children’s feet would otherwise churn up dust and fine material from the floor. It’s a design philosophy that looked at a widespread health issue and recognised that, for schools, we had the technical ability – coupled with the yarn technology – to design a carpet better suited for today’s educational facilities.
However, improving indoor air quality – important though that is - is not the only reason for using specialist carpet. The other is acoustics – the unique ability of carpet, as compared to other flooring options, to absorb sound. The issue of acoustics has been the subject of much recent research, helping educationalists to better understand its importance, and influencing architects and interior designers to use space and building materials in new and imaginative ways to deal with what is often a noisy environment. The importance of sound is, quite obviously, that children primarily learn through listening and therefore need a learning environment in which they can properly hear and understand what the teacher is telling them.
In technical terms, some of the sound from a teacher – the direct sound – passes directly into the ears of their school pupils. However, another part of the sound travels to other surfaces in the room and is reflected – eventually reaching the ears of pupils from many directions but at different intervals. This is called reverberant sound and if there is too much of it, then speech is difficult to understand. For many children, this can be an important issue. For hard-of-hearing children, who make more use of low sound frequencies below 500Hz, it is of enormous importance.
Acoustics and Learning
The acoustic quality of educational facilities has therefore become an important consideration in both architecture and interior design. Indeed, sound quality within schools has now become a part of building regulations in many countries. Canadian research in 2005 (4) found that “in a typical grade 1 classroom, the average student will not understand one in six simple, familiar, and clearly spoken words. However, “in quieter conditions they can understand almost all of these words.” In 2007, the Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists (CASLPA) warned parents that a noisy classroom could affect a child’s ability to learn. CASLPA urged “that all new schools should be built with consideration of classroom acoustics and existing schools should be assessed and improvements made to address acoustics.” The Canadian research was based on evidence that an average empty classroom’s background noise measures about 50 decibels (dB), and comes from sources such as outside traffic and schoolyard activities, hallways and neighbouring rooms, equipment like computers and projectors, and lighting, ventilation, and heating systems. Add another approximately 10 dB from typical student activity, and the total background noise is 60 dB. That effectively covers up the teacher’s voice, since conversational speech is about 60 dB.
The researchers put forward several solutions to address the issue included using hypo-allergenic carpeting, hanging up curtains and cork boards, adding felt pads under chair and table legs, installing acoustic tiles, and putting up barriers to help absorb sound.
Sound and Educational Performance
The issue goes further than merely being an irritant. A large-scale UK study among 2,000 school children (aged 7-10) found that noise levels influence children’s performance and can adversely affect national test results. In other words, poor acoustics in the classroom do affect academic achievement – and that can have lifetime consequences. The joint study was carried out by London University’s Institute of Education and the South Bank University. The 2002 study found that appropriate acoustic design can reduce noise levels, and cited one London school, St Alfege with St Peter Primary School, which had introduced such measures – with the head teacher saying that the introduction of carpets and the addition of double glazing had made a big improvement.
In the same way that we designed AirMaster® to meet a specific health-related issue, we have also recently introduced a new carpet backing that offers a 60% acoustic improvement over standard carpet ranges. Standard carpet gives contact sound reduction properties of between 20 and 30 decibels. SoundMaster® gives a further reduction of 10 dB or more, making it the most sound reducing option on the market – and in many cases making it unnecessary to install other sound reducing strategies such as ceiling tiles.
Carpet, of course, boasts many other practical qualities and aesthetic benefits that, taken together, can significantly complement the learning process – from the simple fact that, for younger pupils, carpet provides a convenient, comfortable and pleasing surface on which teachers and students can sit or, when a slip of fall occurs, a softer landing! Specialist, hard-wearing, cost-effective and hypo-allergenic carpets not only complement the interior environment of a school; by keeping children safer and reducing noise levels, they provide environments in which teaching and learning can better take place – a quieter environment where the air that we breathe is being actively cleaned.
Good news indeed for the 10% or more of us who suffer from asthma, or the 100% of us who want to teach and learn in a good indoor environment.
- Andrew Sibley, DESSO
DESSO has been designing and manufacturing carpet for almost 80 years. The company has factories in Europe and its products can be found in commercial and public buildings worldwide.
Comments about this article? Contact Jenny Krijnen, DESSO firstname.lastname@example.org
(2) Among other studies, Dr Heike Neumeister-Kemp, the School of Biological Science, Murdoch University, Perth, Australia (2005)
(3) Independent tests were carried out by GUI, the German test institute, and based on AirMaster® performance against standard PVC hard flooring and standard structured loop pile carpet. GUI specialises in assessing air quality, dampness and dust particle count.
(4) John Bradley, the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network.
October 12th, 2010