CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENTS HAVE MORE IMPACTS THAN YOU THINK
Children spend a large part of their waking life in school, so ensuring good indoor environmental quality plays a key role in their health, comfort and ability to focus on their work
Better classrooms are buildings where the indoor conditions promote the comfort, health and wellbeing of students and teachers. Student performance can decrease if the lighting in a classroom is too bright or dark, the temperature is too cold or warm, the noise levels makes speech too hard to hear or poor ventilation makes the air too stuffy (with high levels of carbon dioxide), affecting the ability to concentrate.
My PhD research, under the supervision of Associate Professor Michael Donn and Dr Geoff Thomas from the Wellington Faculty of Architecture and Design Innovation at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, shows how electronic monitoring devices that simultaneously measure lighting, temperature, relative humidity, sound and carbon dioxide levels can provide data-driven insights for designing and maintaining better school buildings.
We worked with the Ministry of Education to develop this work. The Ministry has a range of programmes looking to electronically monitor these environmental elements in schools to provide good information on how design decisions can create more stable, predictable and reliable indoor environments. Our research provides scientific evidence to support these programmes.
In a world looking for evidence-based policy decisions, electronic monitoring devices can be installed into classrooms to collect data over a span of time. Internationally, there is plenty of evidence of a connection between learning performance and indoor environmental quality that is at least as strong as the ‘teacher effect’. There has until now been no agreement on how to monitor environments in classrooms, including basic requirements such as the location of multi-variable internal environmental monitoring devices.
In any large property portfolio such as the school or housing portfolio, a scalable and cost-effective way of measuring the indoor environmental quality (IEQ) will be needed to gain evidence-based insights. Within education, the New Zealand Government has set a target of all schools providing quality learning environments by 2030. To achieve this, monitoring IEQ in classrooms is crucial to understanding how we can improve designs and remediate underperforming teaching spaces.
Our research has developed a proof of concept for using electronic monitoring devices to assess IEQ at an unprecedented scale to diagnose building performance for early discrimination of good and poor performing buildings among the 15,000 teaching spaces in our education portfolio. These assessments will inform design decisions, remediation approaches, user behaviours and further evidence-based policy decisions.
In general, people are largely unaware of the impact of poor IEQ. As part of our study, we discussed with one primary school class and their teacher the effect of carbon dioxide on concentration levels. The students identified that often carbon dioxide levels on the electronic monitoring device we provided increased quickly when the windows were closed, but as they opened the windows the levels decreased significantly. The students found it difficult to persuade a relief teacher to keep the windows open on a cold winter day. This suggests an awareness of managing these environmental factors can promote better classrooms. It also demonstrates the value of electronic monitoring device information on building performance, with signals to open window, lower blinds and turn on lights when measurements fall outside the range of adequate conditions.
Recommendations as to the systematic planning of the placement of electronic monitoring devices, and eventual analysis to make sense of the data, was the principal outcome of our research. In a large property portfolio, electronic monitoring devices combined with user surveys can be useful to determine which buildings may need improving and identify interventions and modifications.
Given the widespread evidence of the effect of IEQ on productivity, these parameters are clearly worth monitoring. In addition, good IEQ in buildings can reduce ongoing operating costs (e.g. energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions). Our study has the potential to impact the way buildings are maintained in New Zealand and most likely also in many other locations internationally.