A Question of Economics

12/10/2001 | By Jim Widmer

The Key to Achieving Better Indoor Air Quality: Do Something! (Part 3 of 5)

As with everything, proper building IAQ is a question of economics. How much will it cost, and what is the payback? But the case for investing in sound IAQ techniques is not easily made. While there have been some clinical, quantifiable studies proving the opportunity costs of IAQ, the industry overall has done a poor job of tying worker productivity drop-off, or improvement, to IAQ issues.

It is at least a three-fold problem: 1.) There is little quantifiable data linking productivity to building IAQ; 2.) To achieve an adequate, sustainable level of proper IAQ, building owners must make a sizeable investment, either during construction or in retrofit; and, 3.) There is much disagreement among the stakeholders in a building's value chain over what proper IAQ means. The result is no compelling reason for building owners to make the necessary investment with an undefined payback.

The HP-Woods study reports that a systematic approach is needed, whereby evaluation criteria are defined in terms of credible parameters and values, standard protocols are applied (i.e., Building Diagnostics), recognized statistical designs and procedures are used, and valid and reliable data is obtained. But what building owner has the resources or the inclination to undertake what equates to a doctoral thesis? You want answers, and you want them readily available and easily applicable.

American Society of Heating, Refrigerating & Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Standard 62-1999 specifies required ventilation rates and sets IAQ standards intended to minimize the health risk for building occupants. The standard designates required outdoor air ventilation in cfm (cubic feet per minute) per person. Though these requirements vary from application to application, they generally recommend an average of 15-20 cfm of outdoor ventilation per person.

The perfect building would allow for adequate ventilation based on occupancy levels, contain no pollutants such as VOCs, formaldehyde, etc. and make maximum use of natural light. Although some come close, the perfect building doesn't exist. It would simply cost too much to build, or occupy. Yet the costs of NOT building or occupying this building are too high. So high, in fact, they can no longer be ignored.

We know this much: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that the prevalence of the problem is unknown. A 1984 (yes - 1984!) World Health Organization report suggested that as many as 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may generate excessive complaints related to indoor air quality. In a nationwide, random sampling of U.S. office workers, 24 percent perceived air quality problems in their work environments, and 20 percent believed their work performance was hampered thereby.
The U.S. Department of Energy has performed studies that have estimated the potential financial gain from improved indoor environments at between $30 billion and $150 billion annually, including health-care, sick leave and worker performance. Similar studies have suggested that productivity loss from SBS alone could cost American businesses upwards of $50 billion annually. (EHS Services, Inc.).

Fifty billion dollars is a lot of money. So in the absence of hard data, let's look at some self-truths:

  • In many cases, in an effort to shave costs, most building owners provide their tenants with only five cubic feet of fresh air per minute per person rather than 20 cfm/pp recommended by ASHRAE, or "Almost enough to keep people alive," says New York architect Robert F. Fox Jr., whose firm designs environmentally friendly skyscrapers such as the Durst Building at 4 Times Square.
  • According to BusinessWeek (June 5, 2000), the combination of breathing stale air and working in spaces lit by fluorescent lights can cause boredom, eyestrain, and lethargy. But for 20- to 30-percent of the office population, the problems can range from the mild--headaches, nausea, dizziness, short-term memory loss, irritability, and itchy eyes and throats--to possible damage to the nervous and respiratory systems. Doctors also link the doubling of asthma rates since 1980 to bad indoor air.

  • An HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system and building design that fails to account for these factors will likely lead to less healthy, less productive workspaces within the building.

  • A person who is suffering the effects of SBS, even if there are mitigating factors, will likely be less likely to perform his / her job as well as someone who performs a similar job in acceptable conditions.

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