Many of our childhood experiences take place in school. Whether these memories are good or bad, most children and teenagers spend a majority of their days in classrooms or other educational facilities. According to IQAir, “every year, children spend an average of 1,300 hours in school buildings.” But even as the world changes rapidly, and the internet in particular increases the accessibility of information, the design and operation of schools remain, in a way, outdated. As noted in a previous article, ideally the typology of educational spaces and the configuration of classrooms should suit more contemporary ways of teaching and learning, rather than the traditional organization of rows of desks facing a teacher at the head. But it is important that the analysis of educational facilities does not stop there. All surfaces and materials have a significant impact on both the well-being and learning of users.
The design of indoor environments is of critical importance to human health - an intuitive conclusion that is also supported by a growing body of scientific evidence. In this previous article, for example, we observed how much deficient acoustics can hinder the knowledge acquisition process, interfering with attention and worsening the communication between student and teacher. Another factor of paramount importance is the quality of air in indoor environments. According to the EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) indoor air quality is an essential component of a healthy indoor environment and can thus help schools achieve their primary goal of educating children. Polluted indoor air - a far more common problem than many may think - can trigger respiratory diseases and even impair a person's ability to perform tasks that require concentration, calculation, and memory. According to the same source, almost 1 in 13 school-age children have asthma, making it the main cause of school absenteeism due to chronic diseases.
For these and many other reasons, when specifying the materials for a new school or for the renovation of a school, it is essential to consider several variables that will contribute significantly to the quality of life of users. Various researches have shown that the resilience and versatility of wood make it a very suitable building material for schools and other typologies, helping create safe, healthy and inspiring environments.
One of the main benefits of wood is a factor very difficult to measure. Although it is widely accepted that material choice has a significant impact on the aesthetic quality of an indoor environment, the idea that it may be equally important for psychological reasons has not been proven until recently. Research carried out by the University of British Columbia and FPInnovations concluded that the visual presence of wood inside buildings helps reduce stress levels among occupants. This synthesis of global research summarizes the latest scientific research and converging trends on biophilic design. This makes wood use beneficial for potentially chaotic environments, though additional evidence indicates that there are other advantages as well.
As a renewable and versatile building material, wood can be used at a variety of different scales and in a variety of different construction systems, including wood frame, solid wood, mass timber, and various external and internal finishing uses, mainly through the use of panels.
Furthermore, wood's attenuation coefficient and sound absorption properties provide valuable acoustic benefits, allowing it to be used flexibly for a variety of different programs, from gyms to libraries. The porous nature of wood performs an acoustic function without the need for other devices to improve sound quality.
The use of wood products can also improve indoor air quality by moderating humidity. Acting like a sponge, wood absorbs and releases moisture to maintain balance with the surrounding air. This property has the effect of increasing the humidity when the air is dry and decreasing it when the air is moist. Another important factor is that the wood is considered hypoallergenic, and its smooth surfaces can prevent the accumulation of particles (common in soft finishes like carpets) and are easy to clean.
Another advantage of using wood for schools is the reduction of construction time. Timing is almost always a concern, especially for renovations, which usually need to be done quickly during vacation periods so that the work has as little overlap with class times as possible. Prefabricated and lightweight systems make construction speeds even faster, especially compared to concrete with its high curing time. With the advent of new mass wood products and systems, wood also has advantages in seismic, fire, and wind resistance for the benefit of extra safety.
Like many other materials, wooden buildings require maintenance, although the frequency of touch-ups can be greatly reduced if the school is properly designed to reduce the wood's exposure to water and direct ultraviolet rays. An interesting survey conducted in school districts in British Columbia, Canada, found that wood is less frequently vandalized than other materials, likely due to its perception as a finishing material.
For example, for the Samuel Brighouse Elementary School project in Canada, the new building was approached as an opportunity to promote sustainability and to use the architecture itself as a teaching tool. The project team combined passive and active sustainability strategies, including natural ventilation, natural light capture, triple-glazed frames, geothermal energy, water heating by the sun, green roofs, materials emitting low quantities of volatile organic compounds (VOC), materials with carbon sequestration, low maintenance materials, and more. It was observed that the use of wood in particular became a popular topic of discussion among students, employees, and the community, which went beyond the aesthetic qualities of the material and instead broached topics such as the importance of forestry for the local economy and the role of wood in mitigating climate change.
Developing solutions that combine the well-being of users with a more intelligent and respectful use of our natural resources is essential for the future of the construction industry. For typologies that require economical, robust, and durable solutions, like schools, using environmentally sustainable systems and materials like wood can play an important educational role for future generations, bringing about critical changes in their communities.
To learn more about the topic, read the report "Wood, Well-being and Performance: The Human and Organizational Benefits of Wood Buildings", that summarizes global research on the health impacts of using wood and natural materials in our buildings.