Building a Green EmpireJulie Spitkovsky, for Wharton IGEL
You can’t solve a problem you don’t understand. Raising awareness, sharing information and cultivating interest about indoor air quality are important tools for building design professionals to exploit at the start of the design process to achieve optimal indoor air conditions from the start of a project through building occupancy.
Getting people to break habits is extremely difficult. Paul Scialla, Founder and CEO at Delos explains, “Our built environments can shape our habits, regulate our sleep-wake cycle, drive us toward healthy and unhealthy choices, and passively influence our health through the quality of our surroundings. We spend 90% of our time indoors, and by incorporating a variety of healthy design, construction and operations strategies through evidence-based programs such as the WELL Building Standard, we have a profound opportunity to advance human health, well-being and productivity for everyone.”
“Our built environments can shape our habits, regulate our sleep-wake cycle, drive us toward healthy and unhealthy choices, and passively influence our health through the quality of our surroundings.”
Occupant health is a clear economic incentive. In 2007, a study by Mudarri and Fisk estimated that annual costs of asthma attributable to dampness and mold exposure in homes were between $2.1-4.8 billion. By 2014, studies in the health sector revealed reductions in mortality rates, bloodstream infection rates, and medicine consumption in green hospitals, compared to conventional hospitals, indicating that some of these effects could occur because of improved IAQ. Fewer sick days, reduced employee turnover, and fewer medical errors are compelling incentives to design spaces that incorporate evidence based research findings.
Consumer products and building materials emit dangerous gases like VOCs, Formaldehyde and Carbon Dioxide, influencing indoor air quality. Many of these types of compounds were not present half a century ago. According to the EPA, examples of consumer products and building materials that are also sources of indoor air pollution include office furniture, flooring, paints and coating, adhesives and sealants, wall coverings, office equipment, wood products, textiles, and insulation. In 2010, the World Health Organization established guidelines for maximum thresholds of Formaldehyde at .08 ppm, though there are few guidelines for other gases, environmental conditions and particulate matter (the WHO only first identified particulate matter as an indoor pollutant in 2006, explicitly recognizing the limited availability of resources). Indoor air quality (IAQ) is enhanced by using materials that have negligible carcinogenic or chemical emissions, are installed with minimal VOC-producing compounds, offer moisture resistance, and require simple, non-toxic cleaning methods and products. Today, more consumer products and building materials are being studied and certified as low chemical-emitting materials in an effort to control and achieve good indoor air quality. But is this enough?
One premise for green building design is its impact in the energy sector. Today buildings account for 41% of US energy consumption, with nearly half of that usage coming from the commercial sector. Designers have control over energy consumption and indoor air quality factors such as materials, systems, ventilation, the environmental control scheme, and layout. In 2016, the percentage of firms with over 60% green certified projects reached 18 % and is estimated to triple to 37% by 2018. Under LEED standards, Gold Rated buildings earning 39 points are estimated to reduce environmental impact by 50 percent, while Platinum Rated buildings earning 52 points are estimated to reduce environmental impact by almost 70 percent.
Historically the connection between buildings as repositories and gateways of resource flow and air pollution was difficult to measure. In office buildings, over 1/2 of end use energy expenditures come from heating, ventilating and cooling. One of the challenges with flushing ventilation, bringing in outside air at night when the building is unoccupied to cool down the building or remove heat, is the re-introduction of outdoor pollutants and generation of new pollutants. The reaction between outdoor air and indoor materials is a break in equilibrium at the surface of materials causing the emissions of new pollutants, otherwise absorbed by building structures. Well-ventilated work spaces proved to have lower levels of CO2 correlating with decreased levels of worker anxiety and increased levels of productivity. More specific findings in support of the mounting evidence demonstrating the relationship between Indoor Air Quality & productivity tells us there is 61% higher cognitive functioning in green buildings that meet occupant health and energy efficiency standards set by LEED and 100% higher cognitive functioning in buildings with twice the ventilated air rate required for LEED certification (+Green Plus Buildings).
“…heightened levels of Carbon Dioxide over the course of a school year can have detrimental physical effects on children’s developing respiratory system.”
According to Bruce White, Vice President of Airthinx, Inc. “We are starting to see, and have a clearer picture of the health effects of indoor contaminants like PM 1, PM 2.5, PM 10, CO2, CH2O, VOC’s on building occupants. We see from recent studies out of Harvard, Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, USGBC & IWBI, what elevated levels of CO2 alone can do to students and building occupants. Specifically, in children, elevated levels of CO2 can cause wheezing and levels over 1,000 ppm can result in a 10-20% increases in days away from school. That alone affects the school not only in lower test scores, but also in funding from the US Department of Education on attendance levels. More importantly, the prolonged exposure to heightened levels of Carbon Dioxide over the course of a school year can have detrimental physical effect on children’s’ developing respiratory system.”
A poor indoor environment causes occupant discomfort, health problems and poor performance. Building system performance directly impacts maintenance frequency, equipment life, and energy usage. Understanding the process and possible IAQ endpoints (moisture control, drainage, ductwork protection, HVAC production, use of low VOC building materials, minimum ventilation) encourages improved building design. For example, a life cycle assessment (LCA) addresses the impact of a product through all of its life stages. By executing sustainable design in architecture, there is an opportunity for long-term value through modifiable building systems over the life-cycle instead of least-cost investments.
The impacts of evidence based design, a once value added anomaly, are now a requirement for competitive practice. Occupants heightened exposure to the availability of data & metrics, conditions them to demand more assured outcomes on expensive building projects. Architects are in a position to make collective and informed choices that will have a broad impact in the aggregate, such as advising about emission testing protocols to ensure test results can be translated into real world use cases. For example, under LEED, designers can earn up to 15 points for implementing indoor air quality measures.
When considering the options available for indoor air quality management, the exclusive reliance on cleaning the air with filtration systems may not be enough. Air filtration cleaning method results rest on the assumption that ‘dirty’ contaminants are eliminated. Rather, the systems selectively remove some pollutants but not others, and generate new pollutants when the systems are not properly maintained. A reliable counterpart and solution is continuous monitoring of air quality levels in any infrastructure, preserving the integrity of the measurements, producing never before seen analytics and information, and creating better indoor environments, everywhere in the world. In this way, space planning can be more intuitive and give future projects a greater chance of success.
Building a collective understanding of the indoor air quality problem and its ecosystem, creates opportunities to make informed decisions and inspires actions to transform indoor spaces.
Mr. Valentine Lehr, of Lehr Engineering in New York weighs in, “As a consulting design engineer, I am aware that the best intentions and latest technology often fail when needed maintenance and constant monitoring are neglected. At the heart of this is the cost and effort of monitoring these systems and validating proper operation, both tasks which require human input. Further, while devices to monitor air content have been available, these are usually singularly specific, expensive and need frequent calibration. In that regard, the Airthinx monitor is a significant development and improvement. It’s low cost, easy installation, ability to monitor multiple potential contaminants and ease of integration with BMS and specialized monitoring/alarm centers allows for an unprecedented number of devices to be installed, and the original design intent to be fully maintained, assuring high IAQ.”
The solution, developed by Netronix’s IoT platform, guarantees the highest standards of security, reliability, and scalability of the network, and enables quick deployment of devices in commercial, retail & residential buildings with simple, affordable integration into any built environment. Each Airthinx IAQ device has nine built-in sensors (PM 1, PM 2.5, PM 10, CO2, CH2O, VOCs, Temperature, Humidity, & Pressure), measuring air quality with industrial accuracy, at a fraction of the cost, making air quality monitoring financially feasible at room level.
“Its low cost, easy installation, ability to monitor multiple potential contaminants and ease of integration with BMS and specialized monitoring/alarm centers allows for an unprecedented number of devices to be installed, and the original design intent to be fully maintained, assuring high IAQ.”
The advantage of a portable device that fits in the palm of a hand with data available instantaneously from a mobile phone, iPad or desktop is accessibility to information, anytime, anywhere.
Knowledge is power!