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Why Indoor Air Quality Should Be Your Next Office Upgrade

Air quality is not something that is at the forefront of most people’s minds until something happens that emphasizes its importance. That is exactly what happened when the sky over the northeastern part of the country glowed eerily orange earlier this year as a result of the rash of wildfires in Canada. The health hazard was palpable, with the U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI) in New York City reaching a record high of 484 (out of 500) on June 7. And while they couldn’t actually see the danger, residents as far away as Washington, D.C., were also impacted by the Canadian wildfires, leading officials to issue a Code Purple Air Quality Health Advisory for the entire metropolitan Washington region for June 8, meaning the air quality was expected to be between 201 and 300, or “very unhealthy” for everyone. As the frequency of wildfires affecting outdoor air quality continues to rise, we can expect more days where we inhale unsafe levels of pollution, such as ground-level ozone and particulate matter. This deteriorating air quality could reshape our view of office spaces, which offer the advantage of superior indoor air quality (IAQ) to safeguard against poor outdoor conditions.

Indoor air quality can play a hugely important role for the people working inside a building. “You get a healthier environment, fewer sick days, and also there’s quite a bit of evidence that good air quality can contribute to productivity as well, so from the point of view of offices, that sets a really high priority,” Dr. William P. Bahnfleth, professor of architectural engineering at the Pennsylvania State University, said. According to air quality information platform IQAir, overall, the United States recorded an average of 37 on the AQI in 2022, which falls in the 0 to 50 category designated as “good.” But that’s overall. On one day in late August 2023, Minneapolis, Minnesota, made the top-10 list of the most polluted major cities in the world, scoring 115 on the AQI. Outdoor air quality (OAQ) can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, from hour to hour, and it can vary depending on weather, localized pollutant sources, and even traffic. OAQ can not be controlled with ease and there are obvious limitations to how much can be done to mitigate poor OAQ. IAQ, on the other hand, can be almost completely controlled and kept to a minimum level that is far below OAQ.

Creating a healthy office environment is an investment and a process, and the first step is an obvious one that may not initially come to mind. “The number one improvement you can make to your building’s air quality is to make sure it’s running the way it’s supposed to,” said Bahnfleth. “Make sure your building system is operating properly, that you have the right kinds of filters and they’re properly installed. That’s the basic, if you just did that, the air quality in a lot of these older buildings would be much better.”

If done correctly with the institution of proper filtration and ventilation, a building can do the breathing for its inhabitants. The International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) is at the forefront of guiding building owners through the process of creating a work environment that promotes health and well-being. WELL certification has fast become known as the stamp of a healthy building. “We can make buildings that protect us, but we have to make the invisible visible, we have to tell people about the things they can’t see and they can’t touch in a building that are harming you,” said Dr. Whitney Austin Gray, senior vice president, research, with the International WELL Building Institute. 

WELL–like other building wellness certifications such as Fitwel, Reset and GBI Green Globes for Healthy Buildings–is an umbrella of sorts, offering guidance and confirmation for property owners and managers in their pursuit of establishing healthy buildings at every level. For those owners who are just getting their feet wet in the world of healthy buildings, IWBI offers individual building ratings, which verify specific subsets of strategies from the WELL Standard. Certification from the organization, however, is all-encompassing and demonstrates the ultimate commitment to health, safety, equity, and performance with levels starting at Bronze, and continuing up to Silver, Gold, and then Platinum.  

As part of achieving WELL certification, buildings are required to go above and beyond the standards of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) in providing proper ventilation. Certified properties also incorporate a high-level filter, MERV 13, that will catch very small particles as they move through the building’s ventilation system, in addition to a target-specific filtration system. The certification process also assesses a building’s materials to determine which ones are producing unhealthy emissions, and evaluates the cleaning behavior at a property, taking a look at the chemicals that are being sprayed and even vacuuming habits. “So, in the office, the WELL-certification process is going to walk you through the task of assessing the property and addressing requisite changes because the reality of it is this is an overwhelming amount of information,” Gray conceded.

As was the case when building owners first began to embrace sustainability practices, many landlords are wary of not just the extensive amount of information involved in the process of upgrading their office IAQ, but also the costs that come with it. “There’s a lot of resistance of ‘that’s too expensive’ or if they want to give you an argument that sounds more defensible, they’ll say that will increase the energy use of the building and that’s against our goals of decarbonization,” Bahnfleth said. But neither necessarily has to be true. “You can improve the air quality in buildings pretty cost-effectively and with little energy impact, especially if you commission your systems,” Bahnfleth continued. There’s ample technology for IAQ as well as simple procedures, but it all boils down to the people in control. 

Simple procedures include the incorporation of uncomplicated ventilation and filtration systems. On the high-tech end, there are sophisticated new products and procedures that can be used to accomplish premium levels of IAQ. Far-UVC light is among the new technologies designed to clean indoor air. Research produced by Columbia University and other institutions indicates that the use of far-UVC light can safely and effectively inactivate airborne bacteria and viruses in occupied spaces and on material surfaces. Plasma air purification systems, which filter pathogenic microbial aerosols (PMA), a common environmental pollutant, are not new, but technological advances in these systems are taking air cleansing to a new level. As noted in the August 2023 issue of the journal Physics of Plasmas, a set of researchers has incorporated AI and genetic algorithms to create a new plasma air purification system that filters PMA and obliterates the accompanying micro-organisms simultaneously, allowing for the effortless decontamination and reuse of PAPA components. 

Creating a healthy office building that provides air quality superior to that found outdoors or even in people’s homes is one thing, but maintaining it is another. Most building managers are not experts in the field of health, so IWBI believes that building professionals who are educated and trained to oversee healthy buildings should be acknowledged as certified public health officials, and not simply as building managers. “Those building professionals who have the equipment to detect issues, know how to address them and can clearly communicate that, that is the trifecta of the future of the facility manager,” Gray said.

As building owners continue to coax employees to come into the office for more days out of the week and attempt to attract and retain new talent, offering high IAQ is a prudent move. A Honeywell survey found that 93 percent of respondents have higher expectations for IAQ in their workplace than they did three years ago. Furthermore, 21 percent of employees would seek work elsewhere if their employer didn’t adopt measures to maintain a healthy indoor environment. Employees know that a building with premier IAQ can be healthier than the air we breathe outside on any day, especially on those days when such incidents as wildfires visibly pollute the air. Increasingly, office workers are placing a premium on healthy surroundings in the workplace, and access to clean air is high on the list. Employers may be able to coax workers into spending more time in the office as a means of increasing their daily access to a healthy environment. Office buildings can provide a level of clean air that the majority of people are unable to achieve at home without a massive monetary investment. So maybe every day is a good day to be in the office.

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