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The New Mechanics of Productivity: Boost Your Building's IAQ

There is constant change in our workplaces, economies and demographics – change where tangible differences are seen every few years. Examples include millennials’ workplace expectations, lifestyles, and of course, technologies and the way people interact with this new equipment. On the other hand, our buildings’ infrastructure - the core components like the air conditioning, the daylight and the sensations the indoor environment creates, change much more slowly.

What do building operators do to manage this discrepancy?  How are building owners meeting a new generation’s needs with a building that may have been constructed before many of its occupants were even born? In particular, how is the air quality in a typical office space managed, considering that most people spend 90% or more of their time indoors? 

It is in the nature of most new products integrated into buildings that they cease impacting the indoor air as their emissions slow down or cease. As buildings age though, changes and deterioration in mechanical system operations have the potential to negatively impact the indoor environment.

Scientific studies show that indoor air quality (IAQ) can significantly affect productivity. Building operators have stepped up to the challenge with continuously updated standards and engineering protocols to maintain ventilation, filtration and hygienic condition standards. We refer to these strategies as the New Mechanics of Productivity: tactical steps a facility manager can take to ensure good IAQ that lasts a building’s lifetime. There is an ordered strategy to building a sound IAQ policy for a commercial building as follows:

Identify, Reduce or Eliminate Sources of Contaminants

1) Occupant related sources – Clutter, office and cooking equipment, and tracked-in contaminants can all contribute to a problem. 
2) Building materials – Be on the lookout for remnants of construction projects, furnishings, and parts left over from renovation/remodeling
3) Building uses – Pay extra attention to areas such as retail, laboratories, or dining spaces. 
4) HVAC Equipment – Oils, refrigerants and combustion products, dirt, and microbial contaminants can all be possible culprits. 
5) Moisture
6) Vehicular sources
7) Outdoor sources – 
Trash, chemicals, and any product used to maintain a building’s exterior could be an issue. 
8) Soils and ground sources – Can include underground storage tanks as well.

For each of these sources there are specific control strategies that need to be implemented to limit or eliminate the indoor air quality problems they can create.  The strategies developed are based on principles of managing pollutant pathways, point ventilation, source control, or elimination.

Apply Management Policies

Building operators can make a surprisingly large impact on IAQ simply by applying management policies – rulemaking – which if enforced will further eliminate pollutant sources:

1) Remodeling and renovation – Construction policies should be uniform and apply equally to all contractors.
2) Painting – Be sure to maintain source control, proper ventilation, isolation, and timing.
3)  Pest Control – Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs such as those published by the EPA (Office of Pesticide Programs, Center of Expertise for School IPM) can be helpful. 
4) Shipping & Receiving — Be sure to set loading dock rules and ensure pressure relationships flow from “clean” areas to “dirty” areas, not the other way around.
5) Smoking – Be sure to set strict rules about smoking in or around your facility and check any applicable local laws. 

Manage HVAC Equipment

The building engineer is often the most underappreciated yet most valuable individual in the entire building. Riding on his or her expertise rests the wellbeing of hundreds or thousands of people who make the building their home every day.  Tasks that fall to building engineering include these key HVAC maintenance operations:

1) Maintain ASHRAE recommended ventilation rates in all occupied spaces of the building – and double check the rates are being met.
2) Ensure filters are well installed and properly specified for the outdoor air conditions.
3) Ensure the air handling units and duct linings are clean and mold-free.
4) Follow the IAQ audit program found in EPA I-BEAM.
5) Training of engineering and property managers on SOPs for maintenance and for responses to events which could impact IAQ, like floods and leaks. 

Beyond these basic IAQ strategies there are sub-specialties for mold control and legionella risk management.  Both these specialties require a working knowledge of microbiology and require the establishment of specific policies and programs, both for prevention of mold or legionella growth and for the procedures to follow in the event of an infestation of building materials or water.

These disciplines have long required an educated and enlightened building operations and management workforce.  They have a direct impact on the human health and productivity of the employees in a commercial building.  As concepts of sustainability mature, our industry is learning that the most valuable components of a building - the human beings that occupy the spaces – have the greatest ROI and the biggest impact on the bottom line.  That’s a lesson that will resonate from the boardroom to the mailroom and everywhere in between. 

Simon Turner, LEED AP is the chief executive officer and managing director at Healthy Buildings. He recently spoke at the Building Health Forum on the New Mechanics of Productivity.

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