It’s time to take a hard look at the air.
Think about your first reaction to stepping into the fresh air of the mountains, the desert, or the beach. Do you raise your head, take a deep breath through your nose, and hold it for a few seconds before slowly exhaling from your mouth? This involuntary response to clean air instantly lowers your heart rate, reduces your blood pressure, and calms your nerves. We’ve all felt it. Is it possible to harness the benefits of clean outdoor air? It’s not just a possibility; the technology to purify and increase air quality exists today. Nevertheless, as a population, we choose to invest elsewhere, spending big money on computers, tutoring, and office environments that enable learning and growth. Yet, what many people don’t realize is that the air they breathe and the thermal levels in their homes, schools, and offices may be undermining these efforts.
But what if two simple changes could enhance strategic thinking, boost student test scores, and even help people heal faster?
All of this can be achieved by simply improving indoor air quality and controlling thermal comfort. It seems that air quality and comfort are often afterthoughts, not seen as basic cornerstones of wellness, because they’re out of sight, out of mind. However, the side effects of unhealthful air have a profound impact on a company’s bottom line. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that in the U.S., poor air quality results in $150 billion of illness-related costs per year. Of that, $93 billion represents lost productivity from headaches, fatigue, and irritation associated with sick building syndrome. It’s time to take a hard look at the air.
Indoor air quality
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, airborne pollutants can be two to five times higher indoors than outdoors. After cleaning the indoor air, employers have seen workplace productivity increase by up to 11 percent. Even more impressive is a 2015 double-blind study from the Harvard School of Public Health showing that people working in well-ventilated offices with low levels of pollutants have double the cognitive function of those in offices with average levels of exactly the same pollutants.
An example of enhanced cognitive ability through air filtration was well documented in a 2015 study in Porter Ranch, California. A gas-leak alarm caused every school within five miles to install air filters in all classrooms, offices, and common areas. Before the gas leak, the schools had conducted academic testing, which provided a baseline for the study. After the air filter installation and subsequent academic testing, student test scores showed significant improvement. The areas beyond the five-mile radius saw no change in student test scores, while the students in the air-filtered schools continued to maintain their higher scores.
In every office, comfort perception varies, depending on several factors from temperature, humidity, and air movement to gender and metabolic rate. Thermal discomfort in the workplace is always near the top of office complaints. The problem stems from the fact that everyone has different temperature preferences, and just a few degrees too hot or too cold can distract individual employees and significantly decrease their performance.
Often, poor indoor air quality and uncomfortable temperatures go uncorrected, because they can only be felt and not seen.
It’s time to make the invisible visible
Through thoughtful design and relatively economical technology, we can improve indoor air quality, enable individuals to regulate their thermal comfort, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions while lowering utility costs. For example, passive features, such as high ceilings, operable windows, ceiling and desk fans, healthy materials, indoor plants, thermal mass (radiant heat), insulated envelope (to reduce heat loss), and external shading, can elevate indoor health and comfort without adding high costs.
But remember, as buildings become more complex and more core-dominated, we must lean toward active systems to help enhance comfort and indoor air quality. This can be done by combining both passive and active means and further incorporating information technology and sensors to fine-tune the indoor environment for personal control.
Three ways to improve the air quality and comfort now:
1) Provide a readily visible IAQ (Indoor Air Quality) monitor
Strive to meet RESET™ Air Certification standards for indoor air quality. Choose an expanded thermostat that reads particulate matter (PM2.5), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and CO2 as well as temperature and humidity. Be sure to locate the monitor where people gather or where individuals go to concentrate. Confirm that the indicator reads real-time air quality and stores the data, making it available to occupants via a dashboard or a phone app.
Use quality sensors for reliable readings. RESET Air provides a list of Grade B air-quality sensors as well as the data platforms used by these sensors. Data platforms provide real-time data access to indoor air quality and a database for reviewing past performance. They are also capable of suggesting when to use purifiers or filters and can even adjust the quantity of air when needed.
2) Clean the air
Invest in an air purifier that will circulate the indoor air and move it through filters to clean it. Boost the purification process by bringing the outside in, adding plants that create oxygen and reduce indoor pollutants. A study by NASA, confirms the air-cleaning powers of 29 different indoor plants, including Dracaena (Corn Plants), Spathiphyllum (Peace Lily), and all palms.
Keep the indoor air clean by installing pollution-trapping entryway mats and using nontoxic (non-VOC) paints and cleaning supplies. Depending on the outside pollution at your location, think about locating the outside air intake away from pollution sources. Where necessary, install gas-phase filters to remove gaseous pollutants originating from traffic, fires, or poor air quality. It’s important, though, to factor in the energy impact of these filters.
Help to reduce off-gassing by using healthy materials in a cleanable environment, and be diligent about using safe cleaning agents to lower the internal polluting load. The database of Health Product Declaration® (HPD) items is growing as are the available lists of ingredients within these products. Multiple resources are available on Pharos Project, Mindful Materials.
3) Increase thermal comfort
Depending on the indoor and outdoor environmental conditions, there are targeted options for increasing thermal comfort. A simple solution for lowering the perceived temperature in a closed environment is a personal fan, which is a great way to provide the correct temperature for individual comfort. The newer tower models are almost silent, have no visible blades, sit on the floor, and look fairly sleek in an office environment.
Heated chairs can provide a multitude of comfort-inducing options, allowing varying individual temperatures without overheating the space. Of course, the old standbys are finding an area with a southern exposure, wearing layered clothing, and learning to love hot herbal tea. Providing personal temperature controls in the workplace brings good value by eliminating space-wide over-cooling and overheating. Research shows that just knowing that individual control is available increases satisfaction and comfort.
How to design for clean and comfortable air
An airside system design allows for increased ventilation and humidity control. Ventilation effectiveness may be increased in a number of ways: by using 100 percent outside-air systems, displacement ventilation, underfloor air distribution systems that provide air at breathing-zone level, or by increasing the quantity of outside air provided. Green Rating Systems like LEED and WELL recommend increasing outside air by 30 percent for improved indoor air quality.
In contrast, a demand-control ventilation (DCV) system adjusts outside ventilation according to the CO2 levels in the space, which vary depending on the number of occupants. The CO2 threshold can be set to meet newer indoor air quality standards, such as those provided in the WELL Building Standard™ or high-performance RESET Standard™.
In more extreme climates, building occupants may benefit from decoupling the outside air supply from the heating and cooling system. A decoupled outside-air system will ensure that occupants get 100 percent of the outside air needed, while controlling the space temperature through a zone conditioning system to conserve fan energy. Variants of a decoupled system include radiant ceilings and passive chilled beams that provide better thermal comfort and save energy in the process. In some areas of the country, such as Washington state, certain types of facilities are required to provide these decoupled systems. For more information, see WELL Air Features 15–21.
Personal environmental controls promote future innovation and energy savings
As environmental technology moves toward individual control, the future promises exciting innovations and significant energy savings. Much of this technology is already here; and new, novel designs can upgrade existing buildings to create efficient, personally tuned indoor environments.
The near future will see personal controls based on need and time of day. For example, dials for thermal comfort and air quality will be set by location, task, and number of people, increasing productivity while consuming energy only in targeted locations. Personally controlled wristbands and built-in desk fans will enable individual adjustments, and outside air control that’s dialed in through personal diffusers will eliminate the aggravation of thermostat wars.
On a larger scale, entire buildings will have integrated monitoring systems that can cater to building occupants’ personal settings through phone apps. The monitoring system will be able to track users and provide them with their unique indoor environmental preferences.
An investment in clean, comfortable air will pay dividends well into the future
Start by installing low-tech, low-cost devices to monitor and clean the indoor air, and plan to incorporate future technologies as they become available. An investment in health now will pay ongoing dividends in productivity and overall well-being.
A great option for today’s building owners is to utilize the energy and drive within the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry to find better indoor air and temperature outcomes for the end user, while lowering the costs of operations and maintenance. Taking on today’s challenges collectively with the AEC’s integrated-design brainpower can lead us to creative indoor-environment solutions that will become business as usual tomorrow.