Indoor Air Quality Trends: Take A Deep Breath

By Chris Patkowski
Published in the November 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

As the link between building occupants and building owners, facility managers (fms), are on the front line of better indoor air quality (IAQ). The expansion of the green building movement has brought increased awareness and the desire for improving or maintaining IAQ and indoor environments during building design, maintenance, and operations.

Building owners may wish to be educated about how, where, and when to achieve better IAQ. Fms have an important role in developing a roadmap for good IAQ at the building level and informing their owners of its benefits.

In making the case for implementing better IAQ, there are three steps fms can take: increase their knowledge on IAQ; become involved as a key team member in facility design or retrofits; and help with the practical concerns of building owners, including the need for energy efficiency and a consideration of the effects of climate change on IAQ practices.

IAQ Resources

Fortunately, there is excellent information available from a variety of resources outlining potential IAQ problems and solutions. Fms can use the material contained in these resources to serve their owners’ best interests and strengthen IAQ within their buildings.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s (LBNL’s) Indoor Air Quality Scientific Findings Resource Bank, sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has a variety of readable, brief summaries on IAQ issues as well as key definitions. These summaries provide information and practical guidance on specific topics related to IAQ including impacts of building ventilation on health and performance; indoor dampness, biological contaminants and health; indoor volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and health; and impacts of indoor environments on human performance and productivity. For example, one of the links for information on indoor dampness has a section on “Implications for Good Building Practices” which contains a helpful summary of practices necessary to reduce dampness problems.

Building Air Quality: A Guide for Building Owners and Facility Managers, developed in 1991 by the EPA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, remains a good introduction to preventing, identifying, and resolving IAQ problems in public and commercial buildings. Fms can use this resource to further their comprehension developing an IAQ profile of building conditions and creating an IAQ management plan, implementing investigative strategies to identify causes of IAQ problems, and determining whether an IAQ problem has been resolved.

Indoor Air Pollution: An Introduction for Health Professionals
summarizes the human signs and symptoms of health problems attributable to poor IAQ. This includes the effects of such pollutants as carbon monoxide and mold on building occupants.

Indoor Air Quality Guide: Best Practices for Design, Construction, and Commissioning serves as a comprehensive and practical resource aimed at helping achieve better IAQ in commercial and institutional buildings. The guide, published in 2009, contains helpful illustrations, including a number of cutaway building sections. These depict—to describe two of many examples—strategies for radon control at the ground level with potential ventilation paths and practical whole building strategies to limit the impact of emissions.

Photographs of real case study buildings depict practices to avoid, such as examples of weak points where water may intrude into the building envelope or poorly placed air intakes. The guide was developed by a team of IAQ experts in coordination with the EPA, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), American Institute of Architects (AIA), Building Owners and Managers Association International (BOMA), Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), and U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

IAQ Considerations During The Design And Retrofit Process

During the design or retrofit process, recognition of the factors which contribute to good IAQ will help lead to improved IAQ during facility operations. Getting IAQ principles to the building design table will help bridge the transition between design and operations. Fms need a place at this table.

Indoor environmental quality (IEQ) is included as a thematic category in green building rating systems such as LEED, which has encouraged the traditional design team of owners, architects, and engineers to think about good IEQ early enough in the design process to make a difference. In LEED, IEQ planning typically results in improved daylight and views, systems controllability, and better thermal comfort. But what about IAQ?

LEED project teams often start to think about IAQ during construction. However, considering it early in the design process is the real key to later positive building performance.

Now that integrated design management principles encourage building owners to establish a multi-disciplinary design and operations team, fms should be at the table during design, bearing questions such as these:

    • What are the building’s local climate characteristics and effects (prevailing winds, prevalence of atmospheric ozone, annual rainfall, and more) and their potential effects on IAQ?
    • Where are the outdoor air intakes and air outlets in the building? Are they accessible for maintenance? What is near them that shouldn’t be?
    • Is there enough spatial distance so the building occupants can walk off (or shed) most surface contaminants after entry?
    • What are the facility’s passive ventilation strategies (operable windows, chimneys/stack effect)?
    • What are the building’s permanent strategies for moisture control to provide human comfort, reduce the risk of mold, and increase the durability of the facility?
    • Have minimum ventilation requirements been implemented to reduce moisture and exposure to pollutants from indoor sources by exhausting pollutants to the outside and ventilating with outdoor air?
    • Has the team chosen low emitting products to reduce occupant exposure to chemical contaminants in indoor air through strategic product selection?
    • Is there an Integrated Pest Management plan in place to minimize the need for chemicals for control of insects, rodents, and other pests?
    • Are IAQ maintenance and housekeeping programs proposed? Good preventive maintenance and housekeeping habits are at the core of establishing and maintaining healthy IAQ in buildings.

The Concerns Of Building Owners

Fms, in acknowledging the range of concerns building owners face, can integrate solutions for these concerns with the pursuit of better IAQ. Commercial building owners in jurisdictions such as New York City and Washington, DC are under new mandates to report energy use at the building level.

Examples of legislation requiring benchmarking and annual reporting of energy use in public and private sector facilities are two interlinked District of Columbia legislative acts: the Green Buildings Act of 2006 and the DC Clean and Affordable Energy Act of 2008; and these are interlinked mayoral mandates of New York City’s Greater, Greener Buildings Plan. The pressure to achieve energy efficiency need not compromise good IAQ.

For example, fms know that an effective and achievable retrofit strategy is heat recovery, which can equally serve energy efficiency and IAQ goals. Having a heat exchanger between the inbound and outbound airflows can, if designed properly, reduce energy use, improve airflow, and enhance comfort.

Additionally, in retrofits or new construction, fms may want to suggest to owners that they consider displacement ventilation strategies. Displacement ventilation, relying on the ancient principles of buoyancy, can produce multiple positive outcomes such as reduced energy use, better thermal comfort, and improved IAQ.

The “New Normal”—Extreme Weather Events

Fms should be aware that buildings designed to operate under the existing climatic conditions may not function well under altered climatic circumstances. In June 2011, the Institute of Medicine released a report entitled Climate Change, the Indoor Environment and Health, commissioned by the EPA.The report points to three key findings:

  1. Poor IEQ is creating problems and impairs the ability of building occupants to work and learn;
  2. Climate change may further worsen existing indoor environment problems and introduce new issues; and
  3. There are opportunities to improve public health while mitigating or adopting to alterations in IEQ by climate change.

Fms can assist their owners in understanding these issues and in planning for the practical consequences of climate change for IAQ. For example, they may proactively flag maintenance issues for extreme weather events, where emergency applications of de-icers and other potentially toxic substances may be needed.

IAQ Impacts Human Performance And Productivity

An informative discussion of the economic impacts of indoor environments on human performance and productivity is available in The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Indoor Air Quality Scientific Findings Resource Bank. The site’s examination of the cost effectiveness of improving indoor environments to increase productivity contains information that fms can use to make the economic argument for better IAQ. In addition, there are specifics to summarize and quantify the performance benefits of specific strategies, such as the advantages of good building ventilation.

Fms who take these steps and commit to educating themselves and their owners on the means and methods of achieving good IAQ can expect happier owners, healthier and more productive building occupants, and a lighter maintenance workload in a more durable, more problem free facility.

Patkowski is a mechanical engineer with EPA’s Indoor Environments Division.