Indoor air quality at workplaces and commercial buildings; new paradigms and emerging trends
The outbreak of COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of indoor air quality at workplaces and has changed the way most organizations and employees are now thinking about it. The concern of employees and employers for indoor air quality is accentuated given the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed that the spread of COVID-19 can take place via airborne transmissions.
It is in this context, we at Caleedo organized a webinar with two industry veterans Mr. Jiji Thomas, Head – Operations at Nucleus Office Parks, and Mr. Vinod K Nair, Head – Business Transformation at ISS India, to get their perspectives and opinion on issues, trends, and developments related to IAQ that are emerging in the building maintenance and facilities management industry.
Here’s the key extract of our discussion with them:
Caleedo Talks: Is indoor air quality at workplaces a hype or reality?
Mr. Nair: The air we breathe today is and has always been a worldwide concern, especially in a developing country like India. Due to the outbreak of CVOID -19, corporates had to being work from home, and add to this was WHO confirming COVID-19 is an airborne infection and hence, its transmission cannot be disregarded in crowded and inadequately ventilated indoor spaces.
Most of us started spending a majority of our time indoors and that’s one cultural shift that we have seen between pre-pandemic and post-pandemic era. This factor alone has contributed to raising questions on the existing indoor environment of accommodating a healthy environment.
As a reaction to this, various questions can be raised on how workplaces can possibly look at new ideas to upgrade their existing indoor environment. Some published and documented numbers we must consider:
- The concentration of indoor air pollutants can be 2-5 times higher than outdoor pollutants (Source: US EPA)
- The cognitive abilities of an individual can also be impacted due to poor IAQ standards being maintained in an indoor environment (Source: Harvard T.Chan)
- 7 million deaths were recorded in India due to Indoor Air Pollution between 2019 to 2020 (Source: ICMR Publication)
- 36% of these 1.7 million deaths were purely because of lung infections/diseases caused by poor IAQ standards (Source: ICMR Publication)
If we are to look at the impact of Indoor Air Pollution from a commercial perspective, about 1.4% of GDP is impacted due to premature death due to air pollution. This figure is for air pollution in general but given the facts that on a daily basis we spend 90% of our time indoors.
IAQ is not hype anymore, the numbers say it all. It is high time that we start taking Indoor Air Quality seriously.
Mr. Thomas: When leaders talk about a specific topic, it is perceived to be a hype but when common public starts talking about the same topic it becomes a reality. That’s a fact of life.
In early 2000s, we used to talk about green buildings as a hype but today it’s a reality and has become a standard norm. Similarly, I think that good IAQ standards would become a reality in the next couple of years.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has really accelerated this shift from a hype to reality.
We conducted an online poll during the webinar in sync with the theme of the discussion and the audience gave their feedback which would perhaps lend future insights on the subject.
A majority 67% of respondents in the poll believe that a good Indoor Air Quality at workplace can have multiple benefits that includes positive psychological impact, reinforce organizational commitment, health and wellness benefits, a future compliant workplace and most importantly happier and more productive workforce. and most importantly
Caleedo Talks: What are the recommended best practices to manage and maintain IAQ at workplaces from a HVAC maintenance standpoint?
Mr. Thomas: IAQ has been a topic of discussion for few years now. In earlier days, efforts for IAQ management were specifically focused on VOCs, Carbon Dioxide (CO2), PM particles and the end users of buildings were not a part of discussions for IAQ management. But, due to the outbreak of COVID-19 IAQ has gained the attention of all stakeholders including the end users.
The causes of poor IAQ remained the same i.e inadequate ventilation, below-par filtration, contamination of chemicals from indoor and outdoor sources. Due to CVOID-19 the focus has largely shifted to controlling the spread of infectious viruses in indoor settings.
There is no sure short answer to the question on how facility managers can help in managing the indoor air quality. We are all still trying to make different experiments. The IAQ deterioration of any building is linked with the actions taken through-out the life cycle of the building, starting with site selection itself.
Different locations have different outdoor conditions and some places would have dangerous and harmful elements like Radon. The presence of such harmful elements is why the selection of site becomes extremely important and relevant.
Secondly the factor that influences the IAQ deterioration is the nature of interior fit out material that we choose. Namely carpets sanitization and varnishes emit formaldehyde all throughout their life.
Similarly, the choice of paints and chemical substances being used in day to day cleaning and maintenance activities also add to the VOC levels.
From a building maintenance perspective, the causes of poor IAQ can be categorized in two types:
- Inadequate filtration and ventilation
- Presence of biological and chemical contaminants in the workplace
Indoor air quality can be managed with the classical model of hierarchy which starts with elimination, substitution and isolation of hazard. In a post-pandemic era the actions for IAQ management are almost the same.
COVID-19 is normally transmitted through exhaled respiratory droplets of infected person. The larger droplets settle down due to gravitational force but the smaller sized aerosols can spread throughout the building. This is where the imperative for property or facility managers come in.
The need to reduce airborne transmission becomes critical and can be achieved through source control (masking and physical distancing) or engineering control (ventilation and filtration).
Existing buildings are faced with a major challenge as they are not designed to control airborne or infection transmissions. Unlike hospitals, commercial buildings are not designed to control infection and taking it to that level would be a big challenge.
Higher ventilations dilute the indoor air contaminants thereby, reducing the intensity of exposure and duration for which these aerosol stay in the building. In addition to this, respiratory aerosols can also be removed through filtration.
Studies have established that upgrading filtration to MeRV-13 in commercial buildings would probably solve a large part of the problem and it is extremely important as most of the commercial buildings recirculate the air within the building.
Is adequate ventilation and filtration the solution? The answer depends on many factors, increasing ventilation has got multiple trade-offs especially when it comes to the cost of cooling or heating the air. There is a trade-off between the cost and efficiency of the building.
Also, in commercial spaces like hotels or restaurants where the number of people inside the building fluctuate significantly, filtration would not be the answer. We could look at other strategies to control airborne transmission in these spaces.
From an HVAC perspective we could look at the following points:
- Ensure continued operation of all systems during the occupant hours
- Ensuring a combination of filters and air cleaners to achieve a minimum of MeRV-13 filtration standards
- Explore options on hybrid working hours to encourage social distancing
- Periodically flushing the systems
- UVC lights can be considered as they can kill pathogens present in the air and also improves the life of the cooling coils
- Ensuring that all sensors like PM sensor, CO2 sensors or other sensors that are required to run your systems are properly calibrated
Lastly, when using MeRV filters, we should look at the pressure drop across the filters so that the air flows are not compromised.
For sanitization purpose, we should only sanitize the buildings when it is really required as uncontrolled use of chemicals is dangerous because of its impact on IAQ and human health.
To summarize, the best way to manage indoor air quality is source control and if that does not work building or property managers may look to apply engineering and administrative controls.
52% of respondents highlighted that their organization is considering the ‘use of indoor air purification systems’ or ‘Improving fresh air ventilation’ to improve IAQ at their workplaces.
40% of respondents highlighted that their organization is considering ‘improving workplace cleaning processes’ and installing ‘high efficiency HVAC filters’. Only 8% of respondents said that their organization is ‘conducting frequent IAQ measurements and reporting’.
Caleedo Talks: In your view, what are the various constituents of good indoor air quality from an Indian context? What are the key parameters of indoor air that we must track and manage?
Mr. Nair: When planning our buildings, we must plan them in such a way that the building occupants feel safe and happy when they are inside the building.
Many a times buildings are constructed in such a way that they qualify for multiple certifications but the occupants are not really satisfied when indoors. As defined by cognizant authorities, the indoor air quality is considered acceptable when there are no contaminants at a certain concentration and 80% of occupants of the building do not express dissatisfaction.
When we talk about the quality of air we breathe we are talking about the composition of the air, the level of contaminants, the level of concentration and the acceptable limit or standard which we should follow.
Some parameters that we must be really careful about are Carbon Monoxide (CO), Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Sulphur, Radon, and Formaldehydes. A large part of indoor air pollution comes from VOCs.
There are prescribed limits of VOCs which is permitted within a cubic meter of air. While there are other parameters like PM particles and CO2 but VOCs need to be closely monitored. As a good practice, when we construct a building we need to plan our constructions in such a way that we by default procure low VOC products.
Apart from VOCs, another major contaminant that we need to look at is ETS (Environmental Tobacco Smoke) which is released as a by-product of smoking.
Almost every building has a designated zone for smoking and most of the times it is right next to the air intake system. Designating a smoking zone right next to the air intake system defeats the purpose of smart and healthy buildings.
Smart buildings must be consumer-centric and allow occupants to control the desired indoor settings like control of lighting and temperature. As we progress our journey to smart buildings, we need to be creative by creating awareness and making real-time IAQ monitoring a mandatory standard for buildings.
As a personal opinion, I think considering a poorly ventilated building as an occupational hazard could also be considered. Government authorities need to look at IAQ from a view point that it is a fundamental right to breathe clean and fresh air when inside a building.
86% of respondents agreed that their organization would consider enhancing IAQ levels at workplaces if there were no statutory compliances forcing it while another 14% responded negatively.
Caleedo Talks: In your view, what are the new trends and future outlook in IAQ and HVAC industry from a consumer behaviour and legislative point of view?
Mr. Thomas: The IAQ industry has only one direction to look at and it is ‘growth’.
Two perspectives that are very evident today are from the evolution of buildings.
Firstly, in early 2000s, buildings were just brick and mortar, and from 2000 to 2015 we largely talked about green buildings, sustainability, and efficiency. From 2015 onwards people started talking about well-buildings.
When well-buildings came into being, the primary concept was that the buildings do not cause any wellness issues to the occupants. Now if we look at the future of buildings, we need to look at something that can be termed as ‘immune-building’.
A concept that would revolve around how we need to manage epidemic kind of situation and how indoor air quality and personal hygiene could be technology driven.
Secondly, the way we would work in the future. During first wave of COVID-19, it appeared that work-from-home is here to stay and when we look at wave two, employees had developed fatigue due to staying at home and had developed a lack of social interaction with friends and colleagues at work.
The new way of working is hybrid and it offers employees the flexibility of working some days from office and some days from home or remote. The key to hybrid working is to drive employees to come to work and IAQ at workplace would be one of the key metrics that employees would consider.
The technology that involves occupant levels, health indicators, and ensure that the workplace protocols are followed would significantly improve occupant experience. Building occupant experience by embracing technology that is focused on managing health and wellness standards would be an area to look at.
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