When we made the decision to cover the topic of indoor air quality (IAQ) in this issue, I had no idea it would generate the type of response that it did. We were flooded with inquiries about what we planned to cover, and a number of members of the design community offered to contribute articles and opinions on the topic. In short, we hit a nerve.
Whenever that happens, I think it's important to probe it a bit and find out why people are so interested in the subject. Beyond the obvious reason that IAQ affects the health of anyone living and working indoors, I think the increasing interest in the quality of the air in the spaces we occupy has to do with a general lack of clarity about the latest standards, including testing and terminology that are driving some of the credits on LEED projects.
Sure, everyone has heard the term VOC (volatile organic compound), but what's the difference between VOCs, SVOCs (semi-volatile organic compounds) and MVOCs (microbial organisms and microbial volatile organic compounds)? How about the difference between Sick Building Syndrome Symptoms (SBSS) and Building Related Illness (BRI) or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)? And how much is a product(s) allowed to emit under the Indoor Environmental Quality for LEED-CI anyway? What about product testing? How do they test products and what do they measure?
If your head is spinning, it's not surprising (and it may not be the offgassing either). There is a lot of technical information out there that can be difficult to sift through, which is why we devoted several articles in this issue to expand on this crucial topic.
As if on cue, Keri Luly submitted her column for this issue's EnvironDesign Notebook, aptly (and humorously) titled, "Thermo-Desorption, Gas Chromato-What??" that speaks directly to the confusion surrounding product emissions testing.
"You probably try to keep up with all the certification programs and green product directories that are marketing like crazy these days, but do you know what those product certifiers are actually certifying?" she asks, then providing the answer: "Test results. More specifically, test results, along with a strict methodology for figuring out what and how to test so we can rely on the results."
Additionally, in this issue's Special Report, indoor air quality expert Anthony Bernheim, FAIA, LEED AP, and principal, Sustainable Design Services for HDR Architecture, explains how design professionals can play a
crucial role in improving IAQ for building occupants by understanding its complexities and following four, specific design principles. Bernheim goes on to make the connection between the air we breathe and our health, and suggests that while designers would like quick and easy answers to creating good IAQ and selecting green materials, there are simply no easy answers. But that doesn't let anyone off the hook.
"It is incumbent on designers to ask questions about building materials and to request information from manufacturers about product performance," he writes. "There are no easy answers—yet. The more questions we ask, and the more frequently we ask them, though, will result in the information we need to ensure good indoor air quality and healthier building occupants."
Finally, a sidebar to this month's ASID forum article, submitted to us from InformeDesign, suggests that research on IAQ is plentiful (there are more than 100 research summaries online at www.informedesign.com), and that some recent studies have examined factors that may influence occupants' perceptions of air quality, including providing explanatory or educational materials.
Whatever your knowledge level about IAQ, one thing is clear: There is an urgent need to address this critical issue, and as a design practitioner, there is something you can do about it. Arm yourself with research and information on the subject; ask manufacturers questions about the "green" products they produce; and follow design principles that help create healthier environments for your clients. Our health depends on it.