As the hammer falls on the education sector, ever-decreasing budgets are causing schools to turn to refurbishing the old rather than building the new if they want to improve the learning environment.
This change in focus has lead one primary school on the Wirral to transform a previously unusable space into a large classroom area, thanks to an acoustic solution from Saint-Gobain Ecophon.
Liscard Primary Schoolin Wallasey was originally built as a secondary school 100 years ago, so its original design has had an impact on the way the modern primary school faculty uses the space. The main hall is the hub of daily school life; the ground floor is used for assemblies and meetings as well as being an additional work space if needed. On the mezzanine level, the extra space was supposed to be a ‘break out’ area for groups of pupils as well as further teaching space. However, due to the design of its high vaulted ceiling, reverberating sound from activities taking place in the main hall below meant teaching conditions were very poor on both floors.
Ainsley Gommon Architects were appointed by the school to refurbish its hall after discussions with the head teacher, the site manager and Mike Woosey of Wirral Borough Council’s Childrens and Young Persons Department. It was essential for them to reclaim the space as an effective teaching and breakout area. Working in conjunction with Lindsay Beck, area sales manager at Ecophon, to get advice on how best to reduce the background noise and create a usable space, Steve Geary, director at Ainsley Gommon Architects, designed an acoustic barrel ceiling using Ecophon’s Focus E tiles, which was shaped to reflect the original arch of the Victorian ceiling design.
Steve Gearyexplains: ‘We were originally brought in just to redesign the reception area of the school but whilst on site, it became clear after speaking to the head teacher and site manager, that the main hall was a big problem to them regarding sound and teaching issues. The head teacher also wanted to update the hall to compliment the high quality refurbishment of the reception area.
‘Together with the school and Ainsley Gommon Architects we prepared a brief to focus on reducing the overall noise level in the main hall and mezzanine, while retaining the building’s beautiful original features. During the construction phase, Leverage Solutions of Cheshire, the project’s main contractor, worked on the vaulted ceiling first so that if the project over ran for any reason, the school would still be able to function. Budget was also an important consideration and after being set a maximum figure of £70,000, we came in £2,000 under this, as well as finishing on time for the start of the new school term.’
Lindsay Beck at Ecophon, explains: ‘Although the shape of the ceiling is not typical of most primary schools in the country and could have presented some issues with the installation, ceiling installers x encountered no problems. By carrying out numerous site visits and working closely with Ainsley Gommon Architects and the school, we were able to provide a solution that has not only significantly improved the acoustic environment but also addressed maintenance issues and helped reduce heating costs.’
Rose Littler, head teacher and Paul Wellsbury, site manager at Liscard Primary School are delighted with the results of the refurbishment: Paul comments: ‘Before the work was carried out in the hall, speech intelligibility was pretty much non-existent. On the mezzanine level, even if you were sitting in close proximity to someone and having a conversation, it was hard to hear them due to the excessive background noise. Now we have a big extra space that pupils can be taught in, which is invaluable as the school continues to grow.
‘As well as the acoustic problems, there were issues with heating the hall. We used to have all the radiators on full and even then the heat didn’t radiate very well so I’ve been very impressed with the thermal insulation properties of Ecophon’s acoustic ceiling tiles. Since they’ve been installed, we’ve turned the first floor radiators off and expect the energy savings to be considerable.’
Acoustician Robert Turner from RPS carried out acoustic measurements once the hall refurbishment was complete. Although calculations weren’t carried out before work started, he is confident that the reverberation time could have exceeded 2.5 seconds which is well above the recommendations outlined by BB93. This has now been reduced to 1.1 seconds which is a huge improvement and in line with the projections made by Ecophon before work started and BB93 recommended targets.
Robert Turner comments: ‘The ceiling was previously made of dense plaster which would have reflected almost all sound hitting it. Combining such low levels of acoustic absorbency with the large volume of the space would have resulted in a long reverberation time and the vaulted ceiling would have introduced sound focusing problems. The introduction of the absorbent ceiling has reduced the reverberation time of the space which has consequently reduced background noise levels and improved speech intelligibility. The improvement in acoustic performance has resulted in a much more comfortable learning environment.’
In addition to the acoustic issues, another main concern for school site manager Paul Wellsbury was the future maintenance of the ceiling. Due to its height, it would be difficult to reach on a regular basis so it was important that any solution took this into account. This was overcome by ensuring that no services were installed in the ceiling. Ecophon’s recommendation to use Focus E tiles also meant that only minimal maintenance would be required in the future as the tiles are made of high density glass wool and extremely durable.