Why You Should Care About Your Office's Indoor Air Quality
Updated: May 3
A More Conscious World
It’s no surprise that the world is more conscious of health outcomes and the factors that contribute to them. As vaccinations roll out with greater momentum, buildings should be preparing for the return of employees. What was important before the pandemic will be different than when people return to their offices in 2021. Building healthiness will be at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts, including the air we breathe and the surfaces we touch. For employers, employee productivity will also be top of mind. With a year of high productivity at home, employees will be expected to have the same or increased productivity back at the office. Poor air quality is a contributing factor to an employee’s productivity, so effective air quality measures should be taken.
While the pandemic shed light on building health outcomes, health risks to pollutant exposure have been on the rise. Pollutant exposure acts as inflammatory agents in the body and manifests in different ways for each person. Among those include 88,000 annual global lung cancer deaths attributed directly to particulate matter exposure and evidence of decreased fertility by up to 20% from pollution exposure of 10+ micrograms. These numbers are astounding and must be a reason to care beyond the immediacy of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Building owners, managers, and employers have a moral obligation to ensure that they are providing the safest and healthiest places to work. Thus, they must not be complacent on deploying solutions to curb this exposure.
What can building owners and managers do?
As Peter Drucker once said, if you can't measure it, you can't change it. The first step buildings can take is baselining their building's indoor air quality. From there, a building can create a comprehensive strategy. The chart below outlines various strategies that should be considered together when designing and implementing a healthy building strategy on air quality.
1. Air Flow / Ventilation
What it is: Increase clean air in a space to dilute pollutant and particle concentrations.
How to improve it: Increase air exchange rates so that air turns over often.
Considerations: Buildings need to ensure that if additional air is part of the solution, it does not negatively impact the temperature and humidity. More air usually means higher energy consumption and costs, so it should be balanced with an effective monitoring strategy.
What it is: Trap and remove particles that prevent air from being clean. Filters consist of media with porous structures of fibers or stretched membrane material to remove particles from airstreams.
How to improve it: Increase air filtration to as high as possible without significantly reducing design airflow. Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) 13 or higher filters are the best filtration on the market.
MERV ≥ 13 (or ISO equivalent) are efficient at capturing airborne viruses
MERV 14 (or ISO equivalent) filters are preferred
High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters are more efficient than MERV 16 filters
Considerations: Ensure HVAC systems can handle filter upgrades without negative impacts to pressure differentials and/or air flow rates prior to changing filters. Create a recurring preventative maintenance strategy to ensure that filters are regularly changed and appropriately disinfected prior to disposal.
What it is: Measure specific pollutant level measures, monitor environmental factors including relative humidity & temperature, and capture air exchange rates.
How to improve it: Through the installation of sensors, tenants can monitor an aggregated pollutant level summary for building areas. Operators can view dashboards of specific pollutant levels and trends by sensor, space, and mechanical zone.
Considerations: There are various sensors in the market and few are commercial grade with large area coverage. Sensors also can measure various pollutants, and it's important to find sensors that monitor multiple pollutants at high efficacies.
What it is: By connecting sensors and the HVAC system in a connected building platform, air flow can be set to automatically adjust if a rise in pollutants is detected from monitoring.
How to improve it: Digital twin technologies can map zones, spaces, and devices to intelligently optimize air quality in real time. This can be done by increasing air supply to dilute pollutants
Considerations: The effective operation of the various system parts is particularly difficult because external and internal building conditions change in a highly dynamic manner. Optimization will continue to evolve as various strategies are studied and tested.
5. Other Emerging Technology
What it is: Includes technologies such as UV-C for disinfection and decontamination, air cleaners including bipolar ionization, chemical and vaporized disinfectants.
How to improve it: Contact Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing (MEP) engineering firm to discuss if options are right for your building.
Considerations: Before any technologies are implemented, it's important for the building to baseline existing conditions and lay out measurable goals for emerging technologies.
6. Communication + Transparency
What it is: Provide transparency of the building health through web, mobile, or building lobby display. Communicate pollutant levels with the building and tenant population.
How to improve it: Communicate pollutant levels with the building and tenant population in real time so that people most concerned about their health can access information when they seek it.
Considerations: Users prefer all data in a single app. It’s important to pick a solution that can integrate with sensors and surface IAQ information in one application using existing infrastructure.
What it is: There are multiple certifications as it relates to factors of a healthy building. Certifications can provide tenants a level of comfort that the building is investing in the health and safety of their occupants.
How to improve it: These certifications can include WELL building certification, Fitwell, LEED, SmartScore by WiredScore, and RESET. Some of these certifications are strictly Air Quality related and others are comprehensive building strategies.
Considerations: Many of these certifications are based on point in time strategies but do not measure consistently and in real time, ensuring appropriate operations. They do a great job of verifying strategy and design, but not real time operations.
The Role Building Tenants Can Play
Tenants can influence the overall healthy building strategy for air quality. Initially, it's as simple as asking questions. While it may seem obvious, the more that tenants put pressure on their management, the higher the likelihood that buildings will move forward with a comprehensive strategy. Earning certifications that encapsulate air quality, albeit important, is just a small piece of that strategy, but only captures a building's air quality at a single point in time. It is certainly not enough to verify effective mitigation of pollutants in real time. Therefore, buildings should also be continually monitoring and optimizing air quality, which tenants can elect to extend into their own office space.