A study from Harvard University and SUNY Upstate Medical University found that those working in high-performing buildings with green certifications perform better than those who do not. Occupants in these buildings had a 26.4% higher cognitive function score, 30% fewer sick building symptoms and a 6.4% higher rating of sleep quality.
With these impacts in mind, it is important to consider IAQ in the scope of your building’s health and wellness plan. Be sure you are taking the best measures with the air your occupants breathe by first understanding some of the biggest myths that can cloud IAQ judgment.
Myth #1 – Providing high ventilation rates is too expensive.
One barrier preventing FMs from investing in better IAQ is that they believe it will cost too much to improve. However, with the increase in productivity that good IAQ provides, it can eventually pay dividends.
“People have the conception that it’s too expensive to provide better IAQ and higher ventilation rates, but when you actually look at the data, higher outside air ventilation rates and better filters are low cost options,” says William Fisk, Senior Scientist of the Indoor Environment Group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “The estimated benefits when you quantify financial gains from improved health, reduced absence or increased performance are many times higher than the implementation costs.”
An earlier study from Harvard and SUNY-Upstate Medical reveals specific findings about cognition in green buildings vs. conventional ones. The researchers found that crisis response was 97% higher in green conditions and 131% higher in green buildings with enhanced ventilation, strategy skills 183% and 288% higher, and information usage 172% and 299% higher.
One key influence on lower cognitive abilities in poorly ventilated buildings is carbon dioxide. Bud Offermann, President of Indoor Environmental Engineering in San Francisco, notes, “People’s productivity and cognitive ability degrade at elevated CO2 concentrations. You have improvement in cognitive abilities when you increase the ventilation rate past the ASHRAE guidelines in the reduction of CO2.”
Moreover, poor ventilation and filtration can contribute to Sick Building Syndrome. Pollutants, dust, pathogens and other materials in the air that trigger respiratory issues can proliferate illness in a building and exacerbate absenteeism.
If untreated, poor IAQ can have critical costs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cite $225.8 billion in productivity losses linked to absenteeism, equating $1,685 per employee.
Fisk suggests the use of economizers because they “increase the average ventilation rates a great deal – they can double them – and they save energy.” Measures like this can offset some of the costs associated with bringing in healthy air, and they will continue to do so in terms of productivity.
“If you can tweak the performance of the individuals that you’re paying by even a little bit, you’re making a big impact on the bottom line,” says Simon Turner, CEO of Healthy Buildings in Lake Forest, CA. Ultimately, taking a more proactive approach to IAQ will yield greater productivity and fewer absences, providing a significant return on investment.
Myth #2 – All greenbuildings have quality IAQ.
While the aforementioned studies both point out that the green buildings they researched have achieved better results from their occupants, it is important to note that the label “green building” can be deceiving in some instances because some certification programs do not prioritize IAQ.
In an article appearing in the journal Building Environment, researchers from the University of Melbourne, James Cook University, UC-San Diego and the Technical University of Denmark address the often tenuous relationship between “green” buildings and IAQ, finding that some green practices have unintended effects.
“Green buildings have the potential to promote more favorable IAQ,” writes the research team. “However, ‘green’ does not necessarily guarantee good IAQ. Certification schemes may provide inadequate incentive in the credit system for improving IAQ.”
The only way to ensure that your building – green or not – is providing healthy IAQ is to be proactive in providing proper ventilation, the best possible filtration, regular maintenance and cleaning and diligent testing.
Myth #3 – Natural materials will create cleaner air.
Just as the label “green building” may not account for IAQ, products that boast being “natural” might be harmful to indoor air. There is a common conception that natural products are healthier than others simply because they are natural. But the truth is, being a natural product can mean almost anything, and what might be healthy in one aspect can be damaging in others.
“Certain green practices and products could actually impair IAQ,” explains the Building Environment study. “So-called green, natural or organic products or materials can nonetheless contain or generate hazardous constituents.”
Be wary of greenwashing because these labels may not have any legitimate reason for including green descriptions. What may seem to be a healthy and safe material might only be considered a natural or green product for marketing purposes.
“Given that consumer products and building materials are a primary contributor to IAQ, truly green products and materials are essential to good IAQ,” write the researchers. “However, products marketed as green and related attributes, such as natural and organic, often lack scientific substantiation and justifiable criteria for their claims.”
Although they aren’t typically considered building products, plants are natural and quite literally green materials thought to help IAQ. But when they are implemented in indoor spaces, there is little scientific evidence to prove that they actually impact the air.
“Plants don’t do anything positively for the indoor air,” says Offermann. “In fact, there are some potential downfalls – if they get overwatered, they’re in a wicker basket that gets moldy, or people start spraying pesticides.”
If you adequately tend to the plants, they might look nice aesthetically in your building, but they won’t do much for IAQ.
Make sure you do research when picking out products and materials to find out how they actually impact IAQ while also making sure you are doing your part to ensure proper ventilation.
Myth #4 – Testing IAQ will leave me vulnerable for liability.
In the case of many IAQ issues, you need to perform specific testing measures to identify them because several are not detectable by sight or smell. Consequently, it is not uncommon for FMs to be hesitant to test for IAQ issues for fear of being held liable if the testing reveals a serious problem that affects occupants. However, it is quite the opposite.
“It’s a big misconception that testing or examining IAQ opens up some kind of Pandora’s Box,” says Turner. “There’s an old school line of thinking that ‘If I test for IAQ, I’m going to document bad things and that’s going to give me a paper trail that will damage me from a liability perspective.’ But you don’t get sued for due diligence, you get sued for negligence.”
If there are IAQ issues that go undetected, you actually become more liable. So be sure that you are testing regularly and keeping lines of communication open. Turner advises using “a combination of air testing, physical inspections and good communication so that information about the building is getting to the engineers, to the property managers and ultimately to the tenants.”
Myth #5 – Targeting VOCs should be your first priority.
Plenty of attention has been placed on the sources of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the industry because of the adverse effects they have on occupants who might breathe them in regularly. Found in paints, adhesives, flooring and other building products, VOCs can contribute to more acute issues like respiratory irritations, headaches, nausea and dizziness and to chronic exposures over long periods of time including liver and kidney damage, central nervous system damage and even cancer. But in most instances, occupants aren’t breathing them in for extended intervals.
“There’s a great deal of effort put into minimizing VOC levels in buildings via low-emitting materials,” says Turner. “It’s good to put effort into employing good source control, but most buildings do not have VOC issues. We measure VOC levels in every building we go into, and we hardly ever find elevated VOCs inside the buildings.”
Most of the time buildings with high VOC levels have been constructed recently, which isn’t to say that they aren’t found in older buildings – it’s just more common in new ones. Therefore, if not already eliminated through proper ventilation, VOC issues will usually be short-lived.
“The levels of VOCs quickly die away over the first six months of a building’s life – possibly sooner,” explains Turner. “We find that the majority of IAQ problems that happen really come down to maintenance and operations, not elevated VOC levels.”
So while it is important to be conscientious when purchasing materials, nothing can really beat good and dependable ventilation practices.
Justin Feit [email protected] is assistant editor of BUILDINGS.