How understanding indoor air quality can change our buildings and employees By Imogen Player

The World Health Organisation define health as “A state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. When we think about this from a building perspective, we must consider the aspects of a building that contribute to a productive, efficient, and safe environment for users – not just one that doesn’t cause illness.

Building occupants can experience ‘sick building syndrome’ which is the name for symptoms you get when in a particular building, including: headaches; blocked or runny nose; dry, itchy skin; dry, sore eyes or throat; cough or wheezing; rashes; tiredness and difficulty concentrating (as defined by the NHS). It can be caused by poor ventilation or poorly maintained air conditioning systems, along with dust, smoke, fumes or fabric fibres in the air or bright or flickering lights.

Therefore, the air quality within and around buildings and structures is important because it strongly impacts our health and wellbeing and is known as indoor air quality (IAQ). It’s especially important to consider indoor air quality when thinking about our wellbeing, along with other aspects of a healthy building such as; water availability and quality, healthy and nourishing food, light, ergonomic setup, thermal comfort, noise and materials used – such as within furnishings and cleaning products. We spend 90% of our time indoors so the value of these shouldn’t be underestimated.

Within the built environment, often organisations are so focused on reducing carbon and have a tunnel vision towards it that they don’t view sustainability as a holistic and interconnected suite of issues. For example, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems (HVAC) are responsible for around 40% of energy consumptions, and obviously have an impact on indoor air quality and therefore wellbeing.

The rate at which outside air is brought into buildings is known as the air exchange rate. In COVID, many building managers increased the HVAC systems so that the air exchange rate was 100% per hour, helping to increase ventilation and reducing the spread of airborne diseases. However, this requires a significant amount of energy to refresh the air, and so has associated increased greenhouse gas emissions and costs. Instead, if the air exchange rate is set at 10% per hour, then cost and energy emissions are lower but so is ventilation and therefore the spread of diseases may be higher. So, a balance is needed.

40% of global energy use is from buildings, and it’s estimated that for every 5 buildings that currently exist, 4 of them will still be here in 2050. It’s crucial that we’re ensuring that we’re using buildings to their best, are energy efficient, and with good indoor air quality. When thinking about the life of a building, a ‘people-first’ approach works well to ensuring that the wellbeing of the occupants is prioritised. By understanding what the usage of a buildings is – for example knowing who is in and when – this helps to know how efficient the building is and could be.

This also has the added benefit of saving costs, for example, air conditioning isn’t needed overnight, and may not even be needed if there aren’t many people in the building during the daytime. There are three consecutive tasks that should be carried out within a building to understand and continually improve IAQ, wellbeing and energy efficiency: onsite testing à continuous monitoring à occupant surveys. This helps to use data and insights to inform action.

By viewing indoor air quality, wellbeing, and carbon as interconnected issues, rather than separate entities, we can consider both people and the environment at the same time within our decision-making, ultimately leading to healthier buildings and happier people.

For more information

Imogen Player
Senior Consultant

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