4 Ways to Improve IAQ and Your Property’s Bottom Line

10/08/2019 | By Joe Derhake

Benjamin Franklin once professed, “I am persuaded that no common air from without is so unwholesome as the air within a close room that has been often breathed and not changed.”

The olfactory experience when you first walk into a space can have an enormous impact on how you feel about that space. More importantly, the overall indoor air quality of a space is one of the most important variables for occupant wellness. 

For hotels and the hospitality industry, odor quality is one of the most important concerns and can quickly have a negative effect on customer satisfaction and willingness to return. A survey by Expedia found that more than 60% of consumers will give better ratings to hotels with high indoor air quality and robust sustainability efforts.

Partner Engineering and Science installed sophisticated living walls throughout their Torrance, CA headquarters. The walls don't require plumbing or soil and are accompanied by a monitoring system that measures air quality.
(Photo: Partner Engineering and Science installed sophisticated living walls throughout their Torrance, CA headquarters. The walls don’t require plumbing or soil and are accompanied by a monitoring system that measures air quality. Credit: Partner Engineering & Science) 

The impact of indoor air quality on office environments can be even more pronounced. Last year, the Harvard School of Public Health performed an extensive two-part study on the links between indoor air quality, physical wellness, decision-making and employee productivity.

For the first part of the study, a group of “knowledgeable workers” (managers, architects and designers) was enrolled to work in a highly controlled environment where cognitive tests were studied alongside manipulated air quality conditions. For the second part of the study, the group was expanded to real-world conditions in 10 buildings across the U.S. with variable indoor air quality.

The productivity benefits from doubling the ventilation rates are $6,500 per person per year. This does not include the other potential health benefits, such as reduced sick building syndrome and absenteeism.

Yet the cost to buildings of performing these measures is $40 per employee per year on average. For some energy-efficient systems, this drops to as low as $1-$10 per person.

A survey by Expedia found that more than 60% of consumers will give better ratings to hotels with high indoor air quality and robust sustainability efforts.

When searching for return on investment, energy efficiency investments are often a more obvious choice due to their noticeable reductions to operational costs. Yet one of the most cost-efficient, beneficial and profitable investments a company can make is in its indoor air quality.

Indoor Air Quality Explained

Indoor air quality measurements consist of three bioengineering metrics:

1. Comfort measures overall air quality indicators such as levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide (CO2), temperature, humidity and airborne particulate matter.

2. Chemical concerns include volatile organic chemicals (from cleaning supplies, paints, adhesives, etc. are a common source of these hazards), sewer gas (i.e., hydrogen sulfide), formaldehyde from engineered woods, and carbon monoxide gas sourced into a building from fork lifts or delivery trucks near loading docks.

3. Biologicals constitute either particulate matter like animal dander, pollen, and/or microbial organisms like fungus, mold and bacteria. In poorly ventilated buildings these bioengineering metrics may fall out of balance and result in occupant comfort complaints and/or concerns of poor indoor air quality.

Fresh air is such a critical component to IAQ that virtually all modern building ventilation systems are designed to constantly introduce fresh outside air into buildings.

Without fresh air, the air in a building quickly begins to feel like a crowded bus: stuffy and moist, odors linger, and you may even feel short of breath. To prevent these negative conditions most modern building ventilation systems are designed to provide a minimum of 5-10% outside air regardless of the outdoor temperatures.  

Generally, CO2 levels are used as an indicator of ventilation problems. CO2 is a byproduct of human respiration and often used to evaluate the amount of fresh air entering a building’s ventilation cycle. CO2 concentrations in a building of 600 to 800 parts per million (ppm) is normal, but for poorly ventilated spaces, CO2 levels can exceed 1,000 ppm or even above 2,000 ppm, which can become uncomfortable for occupants.

When searching for return on investment, energy efficiency investments are often a more obvious choice due to their noticeable reductions to operational costs. Yet one of the most cost-efficient, beneficial and profitable investments a company can make is in its indoor air quality.

This is a common issue in crowded offices, conference rooms and auditoriums. Occupants in poorly ventilated spaces may begin to get tired, lose focus or develop a slight headache. The next time you get out of a long meeting feeling this way, you may not need a cup of coffee, just some fresh air.

Over a longer period, exposure to chronically poor indoor air quality (either because of chemicals, pollutants, particulate matter or lack of ventilation) can result in what is known as “sick building syndrome.” Occupants can experience a range of adverse symptoms ranging from eye and skin irritation, allergies, hypersensitivity to smells and sounds, headaches and nausea, or more serious neurotoxic symptoms.

In addition to revenue loss from employee productivity and sick days, it can be very expensive for property owners to identify and fix root causes, or resell buildings with bad reputations.

A state-owned office tower in Hartford, CT, which has been extensively studied by U.S. government scientists for sick building syndrome, has sat unoccupied and unsellable for two years, despite $6 million in renovations and passing all inspections.

Here are four key ways to improve air quality in your building and improve your bottom line.

1. Be Proactive, Not Reactive

There are two approaches to indoor air quality maintenance:

With a reactive approach, property owners get employee or occupant complaints and then respond to them with remedies. This often “too little too late” and can be costly for building owners and businesses, from a loss of productivity or even of employee trust (possible resignations), legal liability, cleanup issues and weeks of revenue loss if the building must be shut down or vacated.

Fresh air is such a critical component to IAQ that virtually all modern building ventilation systems are designed to constantly introduce fresh outside air into buildings.

Alternatively, in a proactive approach, a certified industrial hygienist (CIH) is engaged from Day One of operation or even pre-occupancy to evaluate and measure the above criteria. Hazardous issues can be identified and easily adjusted in collaboration with systems engineers.

As a building’s occupancy grows, continued engagement with CIH professionals can prevent IAQ issues before they have an impact, which has a positive impact on wellness and ROI.

[Related: Biophilia Study: Keys to Employee Health and Wellness]

2. Optimize Your HVAC

While CIH professionals can help identify issues impacting indoor air quality, ongoing solutions are implemented and maintained by building systems engineers. A building’s HVAC systems are central to regulating air quality and must be regularly maintained and inspected as a best practice. Filtration systems must be regularly inspected and replaced.

The replacement frequency largely depends on the environment of building, activities of the end user (for example, whether hazardous chemicals or biologicals are on-site), and even the particulate matter of the city’s outdoor air.

The International Building Code and International Mechanical Code have specific criteria on ventilation rates for building or use type. This usually dictates the position of HVAC louvers, which are specialized slats that dictate the amount of fresh air entering a building ventilation cycle.

Expert building systems engineers can optimize indoor air in three important ways. One is to implement use of “demand ventilation,” where CO2 detectors are located in special spaces such as conference rooms, auditoriums, etc. to detect variable user loads.

The data collected by these detectors can then be used to adjust outside air flow in real time for a more efficient (and cheaper) operation. Secondly, commercial real estate properties typically maintain a positive pressure on internal environments.

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HVAC fans should be sized and positioned to circulate enough air to prevent uncontrolled or unwanted infiltration of outside contaminants into the building. Finally, CO2 detectors can also be used to detect occupancy levels on off hours, weekends, etc. to automatically optimize ventilation use.

An energy consultant can facilitate commissioning and retro-commissioning to optimize to the HVAC to deliver a conditioned environment while using less energy and increasing cost savings.

3. Add Greenery to Get Some Green

Plant walls, greenery and green walls are an excellent low-cost, high-impact solution for improving localized air quality and occupant wellness without having to resort to a large fix, such as upgrading an HVAC system.

Perhaps there is a carpeted area that impacts air quality. Or a specific office corner or conference room that consistently gets stuffy. Plant wall technology enables a more local and responsive solution that is highly decorative—combining the dual value propositions of biophilia (the natural human connection and desire to affiliate with nature) with the indoor air quality.

[On topic: 5 Air Purifying Indoor Plants]

Active green walls (those that grow in activated carbon) provide the most cost to value. Largely self-sustaining, these walls actively force air through their root system, can metabolize 200 times more pollution (such as formaldehyde, benzene and other VOCs) than a passive plant, and can be maintained for a reasonable price.

Partner Engineering and Science installed sophisticated living walls throughout their Torrance, CA headquarters. The walls don't require plumbing or soil and are accompanied by a monitoring system that measures air quality.
(Photo: Credit: Partner Engineering & Science)

Advanced living plant walls can also reduce particulate matter, and adjust CO2 levels in areas where fresh air is not possible. This is a common occurrence even in buildings with excellent circulation.

The complementary impact on human wellness is no less important. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop from looking at nature for 20 seconds. Patients in hospitals heal faster when nature or plants are surrounding them. Natural scenery has been established to improve mood and productivity.

4. Avoid Major Liabilities

Proactive prevention and quick response to moisture intrusion in building is a must in preventing mold growth essential for maintaining IAQ. Fungus, mold and other biological contaminants are some of the biggest contributors to chronic illness and loss of productivity in buildings.

Testing for and safely managing asbestos building materials is a must, especially during renovations or tenant improvement projects to limit liability from occupant exposure. If there’s either a known or potential vapor intrusion concern, cost effective mitigation systems can be put in place to safeguard occupants.

A solid Operations & Maintenance (O&M) plan and training for building staff are the key to proactively managing all of these risks. An “off the shelf” O&M plan is no use if it’s not customized to your specific building and there’s no training on how to implement it.

Indoor air quality has become an indispensable concern for building owners and occupants, especially as we know more about the potential negative health effects of exposure to volatile chemicals, particulate matter, emissions and other air impurities.

While there are many considerations for maintaining commercial real estate assets, engaging with knowledgeable industrial hygiene specialists and systems engineers to improve indoor air quality can not only lower liability, but boost performance, return on investment and investment value.

About the Author:

Joe Derhake, PE, serves as the CEO of Partner Engineering and Science.Joe Derhake, PE, serves as the CEO of Partner Engineering and Science, a national environmental and engineering due diligence consulting firm. 

Derhake has over 25 years of experience as a registered civil professional engineer. He combines expertise in property due diligence and business savvy to help clients fully optimize their objectives.

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