Visiting a sound place to learn

The bold new twin-site, City of Glasgow College super campus, imbued with Glasgow’s energy and complexity, is impressive. A host of design awards for Michael Laird and Reiach and Hall Architects, supported by Arup Acoustics, is a testament to this.

 

The £228m twin-site super campus itself constitutes a city community, a so-called “sticky” campus, with all the desirable amenities necessary to keep students on-site and engaged. It is, therefore, no surprise that it is now Scotland’s number one destination for higher education students. The design and elevated position shout aspiration and learning. However, unlike some other cloistered, tucked away institutions, it welcomes the community, especially via its student-run shops, cafés and restaurant.

Acoustics, the invisible but essential design element

The impressive atrium at City of Glasgow College

Walking into the building, you find yourself in a vast atrium. A wide and inviting staircase, dotted with seated, chatting students, encourages you further into the light and airy environment. But, take note; this is where so many designs have fallen at the first hurdle. A plethora of recent Further and Higher Education (F&HE) buildings, also of impressive aesthetics, have failed to address the one essential design element that is invisible, but essential to the learning process – acoustics.

An atrium of this scale, with so many concrete, reflective surfaces has the potential to create an environment of such noisy proportions that you would, as the saying goes, find it hard to hear yourself think. That kind of noise drives students off campus and spills over into learning spaces, making for high background noise levels and poor speech intelligibility.

That kind of noise drives students off campus and spills over into learning spaces, making for high background noise levels and poor speech intelligibility.

There is a standard for the acoustic design of learning environments, Building Bulletin 93 (BB93), part of the Building Regulations E4 in England and Wales. This formed a vital part of the design brief. The thermal strategy for the campus requires exposed concrete soffits; a traditional acoustic suspended ceiling was, therefore, not a solution in this instance. Instead, the architects chose a combined acoustic solution to achieve an optimal learning environment: vertical baffles, horizontal rafts and wall panels in slate grey.

Eliminating the guesswork

Interior of City of Glasgow College with clever acoustic solutions
City of Glasgow College with sound absorbing baffles and rafts

“The accurately predicted reverberation time of an extremely large atrium and a number of varying teaching spaces was crucial in achieving a successful design,” says Luke Robertson of acoustic consultants, Arup.

He compared the results of multiple calculation methods to improve the certainty of success. The absorption coefficient data from Arup’s extensive library of both laboratory and in-situ commissioning measurements, along with product data, was drawn upon; optimal positioning of the acoustic baffles, rafts and wall panels was developed with the architect to ensure maximum absorption efficiency.

The use of Arup’s auralisation suite, SoundLab, where they can simulate the building’s acoustic signature before ground is even broken, was extremely useful. Both the architects and the faculty were able to determine which areas needed screening and which could be left open, particularly areas off of the atrium.

Applying non-mandatory regulations

Although BB93 is not mandatory in Scotland, as it is in England and Wales, it was utilised within the brief. Don Oeters of Arup Acoustics explains recent changes, some of which he wrote.

“Criteria for sound insulation, internal ambient noise and reverberation control are similar to BB93 (2003). BB93 (2015) addresses some compliance issues including cross-ventilation from classrooms to circulation and specification of sound-absorbing finishes to sports halls and gyms. There are now defined criteria for ‘Alternative Performance Standards’ and refurbished rooms.”

“Other changes include the introduction of recommended noise limits from equipment such as projectors or fume cupboards, which are described in more detail in the Association of Noise Consultants online publication Acoustics of Schools: a design guide. Also, new standards, in line with the Equalities Act, now take into account students with a more broadly defined range of language and communication difficulties.”

Early testing of mock-up rooms was organised to verify the predictions. The result was a close correlation between predicted and measured results; a successful design and a happy client.

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