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Improved Air Quality is Becoming a Must-Have Feature in Commercial Real Estate

We are learning more and more about the effects of poor indoor air quality. The problem is that these effects aren’t immediately recognizable to most people. You might get a bad headache while sitting in an office where contaminants have settled in the air. You might also feel dizziness or fatigue if those contaminants aren’t circulated out of the space. People with asthma may be more receptive to bad indoor air quality and start having difficulty breathing. But the longer-term effects of chronic exposure to bad indoor air quality, such as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, are much harder to detect until it’s too late. 

Even if they are not easily identifiable, negative health implications from poor air quality are considered a serious problem among health experts. The EPA currently ranks indoor air pollution as one of the top 5 environmental risks to public health and says concentrations of some pollutants are often 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outdoors. But do most office employees and multifamily residents realize this? It might be less than you think, because even if people feel immediate side effects, they may not necessarily blame them on poor air quality.

While most people may not think about the quality of the air they currently breathe all that much, that’s starting to change. And like many changes in recent years, the pandemic has prompted it. In the last two years since COVID-19, there’s been a significant rise in concerns about indoor air quality (or IAQ), and for a good reason. COVID-19, as we all know by now, is a respiratory infection transmitted mainly via airborne droplets, so anxiety surrounding air quality has increased (this was especially true at the beginning of the pandemic).

Air quality is quickly becoming a permanent feature in the commercial real estate market. “Not everyone will say IAQ is a big concern of theirs, but many more buildings now are advertising improved ventilation systems,” said Nathan Stodola, Chief Engineer at International WELL Building Institute. “Just because you’re not getting bad headaches doesn’t mean the air quality is good enough.”

Clearing the air about IAQ

A cynical person might easily write off the increased worries about indoor air quality as another new health and wellness fixation or a marketing scheme pushed by companies who sell IAQ products and services. After all, not every office employee or multifamily resident is particularly health-conscious or thinks about air quality all that often. And there are still scores of Americans who refuse to get COVID vaccines, let alone take the next step and worry about indoor air pollutants. As of December 14, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 15 percent of American adults ages 18 and over remained unvaccinated.

The number of American adults who smoke cigarettes has steadily declined in recent years, but in 2020, the CDC said nearly 13 out of every 100 U.S. adults aged 18 years or older are smokers. That means an estimated 30.8 million American adults (12.5 percent) smoke cigarettes, and it may take some mental gymnastics to imagine many smokers caring all that much about indoor air quality.

But if you move beyond the cynicism and talk to enough indoor air quality experts and everyday office employees, it becomes evident that IAQ is becoming a genuine concern. I interviewed six rank-and-file office workers and a CEO of a small company, and every person told me that they actively think about indoor air quality. In fact, each of them told me they’d taken steps to improve the air they breathe in their own homes. They also say, along with air quality experts, that more public education about the adverse effects of poor IAQ is needed to make people aware of symptoms and causes.

Stodola of the International WELL Building Institute said that, anecdotally, many more office tenants and employees are becoming more knowledgeable about indoor air quality. Tenants are paying a premium for healthy buildings with improved ventilation systems that are WELL certified. Effective rents at healthy buildings get up to 7.7 percent more rent per square foot than nearby peer buildings that aren’t WELL or FITWEL certified, according to MIT’s Real Estate Innovation Lab research. And facility managers have always been more aware of air quality because, in many cases, they need to operate the HVAC systems and hardware needed to improve indoor air quality.

Top health benefits of safer IAQ, according to surveyed office workers

Health benefitPercentage of worker responses
Better overall physical health62 percent
Fewer allergens and pollutants in the air causing less coughing and sneezing60 percent
Fewer airborne contaminants57 percent
Better overall mental health53 percent
Fewer odors in the air48 percent
Increased productivity and problem-solving43 percent
(Source: Honeywell)

Some office employees may care about air quality, but they don’t necessarily know what makes it healthy. A recent survey commissioned by Honeywell said that nearly three out of four office employees are worried about IAQ, and very few get enough updates about it. The survey polled almost 3,000 office workers in buildings in Southeast Asia, Germany, the U.K., and the United States, and it revealed that only about two in five employees could accurately identify all the factors contributing to healthy indoor air. The takeaway is that employees and some tenants may not know what makes indoor air healthy, but they demand cleaner air anyway.

A next-level benefit

Christopher Wink runs a small news site that covers tech businesses in a handful of U.S. cities. Wink’s company, Technical.ly, recently shifted to permanent remote work, but he said he has begun thinking about indoor air quality more in his personal life since the pandemic started.

In his coverage of companies returning to the office, he’s also often noticed the indoor air quality theme. “Employees may not be talking about air quality much, but employers definitely are,” Wink said. “Healthy indoor air quality has become part of what competitive employers should offer. Compensation and benefits are a given, but IAQ is part of the wellness wave and a next-level benefit.” Wink noted that the air we breathe has gone from a relatively obscure issue to a dominant one. “Nobody wants to be in an office that houses a super-spreader event,” he said.

Other office employees that I talked to also said indoor air quality is a topic they’ve thought about more since COVID-19 burst onto the scene. Since becoming a parent and the start of the pandemic, Melissa Polis has become more conscious of air quality. “Even my hairdresser put more filters into their HVAC system and let me know about it,” she said. Polis is a national sales director for a precious metal refinery company in the Philadelphia area, and she works mainly from home, only going into the office once every quarter. When she does make it to the office, she’s always looking for ways to get more fresh air. Polis did add that her company fully renovated its HVAC systems and went above and beyond to improve air quality.

Most people Polis knows are more concerned and knowledgeable about indoor air quality, and many of the business owners she works with are taking extra steps to improve ventilation. Other office employees also expressed concern about air quality, though they admitted they don’t know much about it. Garrett Ettinger, who used to work in an office as a marketing director before taking a fully remote job, said his concerns lessened during the pandemic because he saw so many businesses taking steps to improve air quality. “I think with IAQ, it’s something I trust the experts with,” Ettinger said. “But I don’t think there’s enough public education about it right now.”

The invisible has become visible

As expectations about indoor air quality have shifted, Matthew Sallee, VP of National Accounts for Motili, an HVAC technology company, likes to say, “the invisible has become visible.” People questioned how COVID was transmitted in the frantic early days of the pandemic, and once we knew it was airborne, the concept of indoor air quality became personal very fast.

Sallee said demand for IAQ services at Motili has elevated from the days before the pandemic, but the demand and interest have shifted over time. “Building owners are getting smarter about indoor air quality,” Sallee said. “We continue to see more strategic ventilation systems to meet building needs.” Sallee also noted that what goes into maintaining healthy air quality is evolving and changing, and the White House released the best guidelines he’s seen recently. The Clean Air Buildings Challenge from the White House has put indoor air quality more front-and-center for building owners, or at least that’s the intent.

HVAC equipment, like air quality, can also be sometimes invisible to tenants, so Sallee said it’s crucial for building owners to communicate what they’re doing. Some tenants and employees have seen the media coverage about indoor air quality, Googled some information, and tried to become so-called experts overnight. The concern is well-placed, but Toly Chea, COO of Sanalife, which provides portable air purifiers for businesses, said the limited knowledge caused headaches for building owners in some cases. “HVAC systems are designed to improve air exchange, but they’re not meant to be a virus mitigation tool,” Chea said. “Some companies bring in too much outside air, increasing their energy costs.”

The EPA says indoor air pollution is among the top 5 environmental risks to public health.
(Credit: GRID-Arendal)

Taking the proper steps to improve building air quality and then communicating what’s happening can clear up confusion with tenants and employees and help put their minds at ease. Monitoring IAQ data and showing the results to tenants and employees helps, and it’s increasingly becoming necessary. New tech exists that visualizes air quality data on dashboards online and devices that can be placed inside buildings. It helps eliminate uncertainties employees may have if they can check a device that looks like a thermostat that clearly displays air quality metrics and shows if it’s healthy or not. These devices also drive accountability for building owners and tenants.

And if building owners don’t invest in the devices, occupiers and employees may take matters into their own hands. Assessing a room’s carbon dioxide (CO2) level used to require a lot of expensive scientific instruments, but now anyone can buy a good CO2 monitor for about $200. Concerned tenants and employees can more easily find out if their occupied space meets air quality standards, and they’ll share that info with others. 

Regulations on the way?

Many new companies and startups have recently jumped into the indoor air quality space, pushing new technology. But Michael Driedger, CEO of Airsset Technologies, which monitors and provides data for workplace air quality, said most IAQ tech out there has existed for a while. He added that what goes into maintaining good indoor air quality isn’t exactly exciting or glamorous, either. “It’s really about filter maintenance. Class A offices have great air quality because they pay attention to the small details,” Driedger said. “What makes a building great is good maintenance, not necessarily design and technology.”

Driedger said there are multiple components for healthy IAQ and that humidity is critical because viruses like COVID love dry spaces. Another factor to pay attention to is chemical off-gassing. So-called ‘hygiene theater’ and deep cleaning in the pandemic’s early days were well-intended, but they did more harm than good, causing headaches and air quality issues because of all the chemicals used. Driedger added that property managers should also focus on CO2 levels, keeping them low. 

It can be hard to know whose job maintaining indoor air quality is because it’s typically a group effort between the building owner, tenants, and property manager. And for the most part, indoor air quality is entirely unregulated by the government. The private sector is tighter with its data, making it hard to build public health policy. Driedger noted that it’s sometimes even hard to obtain private sector energy data, but enough has been secured over the years to create the building energy codes becoming more common today. “Energy policies have gotten better lately,” he said, “So IAQ policy won’t be far behind.”

Some experts predict indoor air quality laws could be introduced in the near future.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the U.S. and most other countries, regulations for clean air don’t include indoor pollutants. There are standards and guidelines for levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide set by agencies like EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but they aren’t enforced. The only laws that have had any real impact on indoor air pollution have typically been at the state and local levels and involved banning smoking in public places.

Driedger, though, predicts new indoor air quality government policies to come onto the scene sometime around 2025 or 2026. The pandemic has caused such a shift in attention and expectations for IAQ that it seems inevitable to him. He said history is helpful to tell what happens next, telling the story of the “Great Smog” when coal-fired stove emissions caused mass pollution and killed thousands of people in London in 1952. Four years later, the UK Parliament passed the 1956 Clean Air Act, and then in 1970, the U.S. established the EPA and passed its own Clean Air Act. Of course, federal policymaking is complicated in America right now, especially after recent Supreme Court decisions, but it’s reasonable to see how states and municipalities could pick up the slack and begin establishing indoor air quality laws.

Connecting the dots

It’s widely acknowledged now that COVID-19 is frequently transmitted by airborne droplets, which has drastically changed the conversation about indoor air quality in office buildings and other real estate assets. “This is a virus that spreads through the air almost exclusively indoors. So if we start there, then the building matters,” said Joseph Allen, an associate professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

The U.S. and many other countries have dropped mask mandates and other short-term measures to stop the spread of COVID, making improving IAQ even more critical. This also puts more pressure on building owners and others responsible for indoor ventilation. Corporate occupiers and employees may not know all the details about air quality, but they are increasingly concerned about it. More public education about clean indoor air could put the issue even more front and center.Society may soon begin thinking about indoor air the same as water treatment. Extensive actions are taken to ensure good water quality in public systems, so experts are asking why not do the same for indoor air? This could lead to healthy indoor air in commercial real estate becoming not just a nice-to-have feature but something that must be done, even being regulated by governments. The effects of poor indoor air quality may not be noticeable at first to the average person, but soon, more people may start connecting the dots. And it’s something building owners will be held responsible for.

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