EIAS2015 special: Why use acoustic regulations, standards and guidelines?

When designing for good acoustics, how do you make sure you follow the rules and demands of a certain space? You will (at least) have to look at:

  • The requirements = What you are trying to achieve acoustically.
  • The legal standards, the building regulations and guidelines = The way this is going to be achieved.

The problem with guidelines and standards

In the UK, the BB93 performance standard has been in use within the school building area since 2003. It is good to have regulations and standards that demand certain acoustic requirements to be met: if they did not exist, there might not be enough incentive to design for good acoustics. However, these regulations and standards are not always used in the intended and ideal way, which Adrian James, Director of Adrian James Acoustics, points out in his EIAS2015 presentation. James noted that;

Fulfilling the required standard.
Acousticians should aim for more than just being able to tick the box.
  • Regulations and standards encourage a design that is good enough in order to fulfil the minimum requirements. The numbers specified in the building regulations and standards (on reverberation time, internal sound insulation, noise levels etc.) seem to become the numbers to use instead of aiming higher but perhaps more suitable for the application. A classic case of CATNIP (Cheapest Available Technology Not Involving Prosecution), according to James.
  • Regulations and standards are sometimes applied to school buildings that they are not initially intended for. As an example, BB93 can’t be applied to music studios used for teaching. There are other parameters that need to be considered in these cases. Yet, this does happen. Regulations and standards are at times used without further consideration of what they are trying to achieve. The starting point isn’t the end-users and their needs but rather the numbers in the standard.
  • Writing a standard takes several years, it lags behind research and experience so once finished it might already be out of date.

Do the regulations help?

A regulation states the intention of the design; what someone is setting out to do with the acoustics. For example, the BB93 demands that a space in a school building should have the acoustic conditions appropriate to its intended use.

Regulations come in extra handy when someone in charge of designing a new school space has the following mindset: “Well, the regulations stated that we had to consider acoustics somehow”. In this case, regulation at least gives the acousticians the possibility to rescue a potentially horrible future acoustic environment.

Regulations also work really well when designing for people with special needs (disabled pupils and staff). The Equality Act 2010 from the EU is a standard which also provides a financial incentive to build accessible schools. Without these regulations, it can be very difficult for acousticians to persuade contractors to use up some of their profit margin by putting acoustic treatment in.

What about guidelines?

Well, according to James, guidelines have a tendency to become standards by default, as people who work with acoustics point to them in their work. This can be a good thing: if the guidelines are written well, they have the possibility to encourage better design than what the standard sets out as a minimum.

How can the use of regulations, standards and guidelines improve?

Even though standards, regulations and guidelines are not always used in the best possible way, they are necessary James argues. Therefore, acousticians and others involved in acoustic design need to keep developing and applying them in their work. Perhaps the most crucial aspect is to understand why they are being used in the first place.

Learn more about acoustic standards by watching Adrian James’ engaging and even entertaining presentation given at EIAS 2015 below.

Acoustic Standards 80 Acoustics miscellaneous 272 Educational Environments 177 Research 138

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