SVM Consulting Engineers
SVM Consulting Engineers
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Building Services Designed with Learning in Mind


 

The increasing awareness of wellness in schools is unquestionably a positive step towards creating a pleasant learning environment. This, in turn, raises the question: how can your school’s building services be improved to efficiently optimise performance and wellbeing? 

This article will look at the how building services installations and be used to create efficient and effective learning environments. The key environmental considerations that have been shown to impact on learning effectiveness are Thermal Comfort, Lighting, Air Quality and Acoustics. By utilising ‘SMART’ designs both efficiency and effectiveness of the learning environment can be improved. This not only results in more receptive students, with improved grades, but also a drop-in energy cost. The following sections will demonstrate how each of the environmental considerations can be developed to optimise learning spaces.

Lighting

On average, lighting costs make up approximately 20% of a school’s overall energy costs, so by focusing on the use of SMART lighting design, it is possible to increase student learning potential whilst also reducing energy bills:

  • Daylight harvesting – photoelectric sensors linked with smart lighting controls ensure that the space is correctly illuminated for the required task while maximising the use of natural light. It has been demonstrated that the use of natural light, not only reduces the energy demand from lighting, but also produces more comfortable environments leading to effective learning.

  • SMART blinds – internal blinds linked to photoelectric sensors and the smart lighting control unit ensure the natural daylight is maximised while limiting disruptive glare within the classroom. Having excessive glare with long term occupants can lead to temporary sight disruption or headaches. With traditional manual blinds, the potential disruption leads to blinds being closed, at a disruptive point in the day, and remaining this way for prolonged periods. This greatly limits the effectiveness of daylight harvesting measures.

  • SMART controls – linked to the existing Wi-Fi, these controls can be used to adapt natural and/or electric lighting levels to best suit the tasks being performed. Through pre-set scene option, as currently used in corporate environments, lighting provisions can be quickly modified to best suite the task being undertaken. This allows the educators to be able to focus on delivering content rather than managing their environment.

  • LED lighting – these efficient lamps not only deliver energy savings but can now be used to mimic circadian lighting cycles. Circadian lighting describes the natural rhythm of the sun, which has varying colour temperatures throughout the day. The morning has a blue, cool light which has been shown to stimulate receptors within your eyes, which helps to boost alertness. The colour temperature slowly shifts throughout the day towards a warmer light which biologically signals to the body that night time is coming. This helps to keep the biological clock it time and can be used to improve concentration of pupils during periods when levels would usually decrease.

  • External solar shading – by minimising solar gain in the summer peak indoor temperatures are moderated, whilst maximising solar gain in the winter will reduce the heating demand. This is further explored in the thermal comfort section however, it is worth considering the impact on the daylight allowance when implementing external solar shading.

Thermal comfort

Studies have shown that thermal comfort within a classroom can have a marked impact on student attention span, where classrooms were colder or warmer than the recommended temperatures the associated test scores dropped from around 90% to 76 & 72% respectively. It is therefore clear that maintaining the optimum thermal parameters within classrooms is a benefit to the educational experience and can help students learn more effectively.

Heating

The heating of teaching spaces accounts for around 50% of the energy costs within schools, the following design strategies can help to optimise the conditioning of the space.

  • Passive heating - effective solar shading design can allow the direct solar radiation into the space during the winter, where the solar altitude is lower to maximise the heating effect. This can offset the heating requirement of the space.

  • SMART Boiler Controls – the use of smart controls to link external weather sensors to the boilers, allow the boilers to modulate the flow temperature to deliver the required output for the external temperature allowing them to run more efficiently.

  • Zonal room thermostats – using zonal thermostats which link to the heat emitters can enable unused zones to be set to lower ambient temperatures reducing the heating demand.

  • SMART Controls – Room booking systems linked with local thermostats can be used to ensure only rooms in use will be heated to an occupied temperature, pre-booked rooms can be brought up to temperature in advance, to allow the occupants to walk in to a space at a temperature suitable for them. This could also be linked with absence detectors which turn the heating to an unoccupied temperature in the event a session finishing before the end of the booking allocation.

  • Temperature set point - Ensure room stats are set to the recommended temperatures as defaults (18oC – normal teaching, 15oC – Circulation, 2oC1 – special needs, low activity or young children). The SMART control could be set with the ability for the room booker to specify a preferred temperature for the spaces they occupied. This would result in spaces automatically adjusting to the occupier’s preference rather than manual adjustment being required which may result in higher set points being used for prolonged periods.

Overheating

One side effect associated with climate change is the increase in ambient temperatures. Heat waves are becoming more common and prolonged which have increasingly encroached on typical term times. The recent revision to the Building Bulletin 101 thermal comfort in schools guidelines, has increased the requirements to demonstrate the ability to prevent overheating. The following provides an outline approach to achieve compliance, without the use of active cooling which would increase the energy consumption:

  • External solar shading – The use of active or passive solar shades to block direct solar gains from entering the space should be used. Active shading devices use automated moveable fins which track the sun’s position to optimise the solar shading effect. Passive devices however, rely on fixed fins which have been positioned to block the majority of the adverse solar gains in the warmer months.

  • Blinds – automated blinds can be used to prevent additional ingress of solar radiation into the space reducing room temperatures.

  • Natural ventilation – careful positioning/sizing of natural inlets/outlets enable effective ventilation allowing for free cooling when external temperatures are lower than the internal.

  • Enhanced ventilation – Use of boost fans linked with SMART controls provide enhanced ventilation to maintain comfortable conditions in warmer periods if required to supplement the natural ventilation.

  • Weather conditions – With the predicted rise in ambient temperatures, current designs not only have to be able to perform in today’s conditions but also maintain this performance through the life of the building. Designs can be modelled using dynamic simulation packages in conjunction with predicated future weather files for 2050 & 2080 to assess the long-term performance and ensure buildings are designed to last.

  • Thermal mass – Materials such as concrete have high densities and thermal properties which allow them to absorb high amounts of heat. The effect can be utilised within buildings to provide an element of free cooling. Exposed mass can absorb instantaneous heat gains, lowering the peak resultant temperatures in the space. This heat is then released at cooler periods of the day. Materials have been developed which mimic the effects of high thermal mass without the space and weight requirements associated with concrete.

  • Night Purge – By allowing ventilation to occur during the night, either via natural or mechanical means, the cool external air can be used to provide free cooling for the building. this results in cool, fresh spaces ready for use the next day. Night purge can be particularly effective when combined with high thermal mass.

Air Quality

Having good air quality within teaching spaces is shown to drastically increase occupant concentration and awareness. Air quality is predominantly measured via the concentration of pollutants such as CO2 in the air, with the increasing levels of background levels of CO2, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain good air quality. The below highlight a number of elements which should be considered:

  • Classroom density – by increasing the number of occupants, within the teaching spaces the amount of CO2 generation also increases. This leads to greater provisions being required to reduce the pollutant concentrations to acceptable levels. By choosing smaller class sizes not only is the teaching more personalised and targeted, resulting in more effective learning, but also the ventilation design can be simplified, this has lower associated construction, running and maintenance costs.

  • Natural ventilation – effective use of openable windows/openings to provide natural ventilation can maintain the pollutant concentrations within the recommended levels at an average of 1500ppm and should not exceed 2000ppm.

  • Enhanced ventilation – where natural ventilation is not able to be used to maintain the required pollutant concentration levels, supplementary ventilation linked with SMART controls can be used further reduce these. Where mechanical ventilation is used, the recommended pollutant levels are an average of 1000ppm and not exceeding 1500ppm.

  • SMART control – automated louvers and mechanical ventilation systems linked with pollutant sensors can provide the required level of ventilation to maintain recommended air quality levels whilst minimising the impact on the heating demand.

  • Air filtration – with increasing external pollutant levels, not only with CO2 but also particulate matter 2.5 -10 and NOx emissions, the outside air quality is lowering. Where internal spaces are reliant on the external conditions this can have a detrimental impact on the air quality within the space. The use of filters located with natural ventilation openings or integrated into supply fans can help to reduce the concentrations within the intake air to help maintain pollutant levels within the classes.

Acoustics 

Acoustic conditions within teaching spaces can have a significant impact, not only on learning effectiveness but also on occupant comfort. Spaces which have high noise level can cause distractions or lead to chronic migraines. However, spaces that have low noise level can lead to the space feeling ‘dead’. Poor acoustic design has been shown to impact the relationships between peers and teachers in a negative way, especially pupils with special hearing requirements. The below provides the key concepts associated with good classroom acoustic design:

  • Acoustic attenuation – Where holes are introduced into the façade, to provide ventilation to the room, the sound integrity of the wall is reduced. in areas with high ambient noise levels, such as adjacent to busy roads, this can have a detrimental impact on the noise level within the class. The recommended noise level within teaching spaces is around 25dB with an upper limit of 35dB, this is to ensure adequate audibility with the space. To maintain the recommended levels within the room attenuation devices, consisting of sound absorbent materials enclosed within a boxing, can be placed within ductwork or connected to louvers to absorb a proportion of the external noise.

  • Acoustic panelling – rooms with finishes that are highly reverberant can cause impaired speech perception. Incorporation of acoustic panels can help to absorb excess reverberation to create a more acoustically comfortable space. Where exposed thermal mass is utilised to mitigate overheating, suspended vertical acoustic baffles can be used instead.

  • Sound masking – where finishes are absorbent this can lead to low background noise level which can result in a ‘dead’ space. To overcome this sound masking systems can be used to provide a suitable background noise level. This linked with SMART controls the system can be switched on or off to ensure operation only in times of occupation or when the background noise level is below the recommended level.

  • Room to Room sound insulation – where adjoining classes are likely to be used for tasks which have high associated noise level, good sound insulation such as high performance mineral wool or high density acoustic boards within partition build ups between the spaces can be used to limit the impact on adjoining spaces.

  • Floating floors – providing an acoustically isolated flooring system can provide greater sound transmission insulation when compared to typical floor covering. This is especially useful when thermal mass is being provided through exposed building structure as this can lead to noise and vibrations from the floor below transferring through the ceiling.

  • Plant selection – M&E plant should be selected with acoustic properties in mind, this allows the required conditioning to be achieved while minimising the impact on noise levels.

 These measures are not just for new-build projects; most can be retro-fitted into an existing classroom and, with integrated smart controls, will create a highly efficient and productive space.

In recent years, the use of this technology has increased dramatically in corporate environments. This demand has driven cycles of investment and optimisation, bringing down the capital costs of purchase and installation. 

If you would like to find out exactly how our expert team can assist you in updating your school's building services, or in a new-build project, please contact us on 01442 869369 and ask for Robert Keane, Director.

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