Sustainable Building

The importance of thermal comfort in the education sector

With the exception of home, pupils spend more time in school buildings than any other place. It makes sense, therefore, that school buildings should provide students with a healthy and pleasant environment in which to study.

A recent investigation revealed that one in six schools in England are in desperate need of restoration work. Teachers across England told the Guardian that they were working in buildings so cold last winter they had to keep their coats on.

“One teacher in a primary school in Teesside said she worked in a 26-year-old portable building with windows that would not open and others that would not close.”

It’s hardly a recipe for learning success.

Numerous studies suggest that thermal comfort and the classroom environment are significantly important factors affecting academic achievement. Features such as classroom design, ergonomics, thermal comfort, ventilation and lighting all play a role in creating conditions conducive to effective learning.

Here we consider the impact on learning of one of the most easily controllable factors in the classroom environment – thermal comfort.

What is thermal comfort?

Thermal comfort, according to the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), is “a person’s state of mind in terms of whether they feel too hot or too cold.” HSE states that by managing temperature and humidity (creating comfortable conditions) morale and productivity can be improved. It is easy to see why. In uncomfortably hot or cold environments, it is more difficult to make decisions, perform tasks and to concentrate.

Thermal comfort is a basic requirement for success

In 1943 psychologist Abraham Maslow published his paper on the Theory of Motivation. The theory suggested that people are motivated to fulfil certain requirements before moving on to other more advanced needs, with physiological necessities being the most basic and fundamental.

Building confidence and self-esteem, according to Maslow’s theory, is only achievable once more basic needs are met. This includes survival basics, such as adequate food and water, but also safety and security, health and wellbeing.

Thermal comfort is an essential feature of wellbeing. If a classroom is too hot or too cold, it is much harder for students to focus and concentrate.

Pupils are therefore much less likely to fulfil confidence and self-esteem needs, two essential pillars, according to Maslow, for achievement and success.

The impact of excess cold and heat on learning

A study of 153 classrooms in 27 schools assessed the impact of physical classroom features on academic progress, including room temperature.

The study found that factors affecting temperature were correlated with learning progress and that pupils performed better in rooms where the temperature was easy to control. Student performance in two numerical and two language-based tests was significantly improved when the temperature was reduced from 25°C to 20°C.

Thermal comfort and productivity

Researchers at Salford University reviewed over 300 papers from 67 journals, conference articles and books focusing on indoor environment, occupant comfort, productivity and green buildings. They found that thermal comfort was one of several physical environmental factors impacting productivity.

Another study on the effects of indoor air quality on performance in the workplace also dispelled the myth that children’s performance in school is less affected by environmental factors because they are young and healthy.

“We have found that their performance is more affected, not less, and believe that this is because children in school are by definition doing work that is new to them, while adult workers are usually very familiar with the work they do and thus are better able to cope with environmental effects that make their work more difficult.”

Read our previous blog post on how learning environments can boost productivity to find out more.

The challenges of meeting thermal comfort needs

Meeting individual thermal comfort requirements is a big challenge. Thermal comfort relies upon a number of factors, such as clothing, location in the classroom (i.e. next to a window or near a heat emitter) and even our mood. Metabolism, gender and time of year also determine how hot or cold an individual feels.

Radiant heating offers perfect thermal comfort solution

Radiant heating and cooling offers the most effective and cost-efficient solution to schools, colleges and universities to address temperature variance and ensure pupils’ thermal comfort needs are met.

Unlike conventional radiators, radiant heating panels (installed in ceilings) heat objects in the room, not the air. Radiant heating ensures an even distribution of heat throughout the room and its heating or cooling effects are immediately noticeable. It guarantees thermal comfort because it is warming (or cooling) the body or objects in the room rather than the air. Additional benefits include:

  • High energy efficiency
  • Does not circulate dust and other pollutants
  • Heating panels are installed at ceiling height so it frees up space in the classroom
  • Operates silently
  • Compatible with alternative energy sources, such as heat pumps and condensing appliance technology

The future of thermal comfort in education

There are no laws regulating the optimum temperature required in classrooms and other educational buildings. However, Workplace Regulations require that reasonable steps are taken to achieve a comfortable temperature indoors. The National Education Union (NEU) maintains that the appropriate minimum temperature in classrooms should be no less than 18°C.

Policy makers are starting to understand the importance of thermal comfort.

This time last year the government announced a £1.4billion injection of dedicated funding for the refurbishment of school buildings and facilities.

Then Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, said: “Schools are much more than just buildings; they are the centres of communities, they are where children learn skills for the rest of their lives, and they are safe havens. That’s why it’s vital they are in the best possible condition.”

In addition to the refurbishment budget, the government announced the availability of over £8 million in interest-free loan funding to be split between 167 academies to pay for energy efficiency projects including heating controls, lighting upgrades and insulation.

Thermal comfort is slowly making its way on to the educational policy agenda.

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