Creating ‘safe havens’ – better indoor air quality a staple for mass-occupancy buildings

There has to be a better solution!
There has to be a better solution!

Many anticipated that, by autumn 2021, a semblance of ‘normality’ would have returned to UK workplaces, and we would be putting this pandemic behind us, but sadly this is still not the case. As COVID-19 cases continue to grow steadily in the UK and return-to-work directives remain confusing at best, many firms are, quite rightly, only willing to allow their teams to fully go back to the workplace if they can guarantee their safety and wellbeing in the face of this ongoing pandemic.

The past 18 months demonstrate just how important it is to identify solutions to help ensure that both external and internal air pollutants can be managed, protecting the wellbeing of building occupants. Although many people remain working from home at the moment, the issue of indoor air quality (IAQ) is already high on the agenda for building and business owners looking to get employees back to their place of work safely this year.

The importance of the air that we breathe, day in and day out is higher on the health agenda than ever before - it’s become a hot topic of conversation and media interest. Yet, clear advice can be hard for organisations to find. From a business standpoint, the ongoing uncertainty has led to a degree of apprehension in the market when it comes to making practical and long-term changes to workplaces, particularly with regards to improving indoor air quality.


Quick fix

Many individuals and companies have turned towards air purifiers as a quick fix to the problem. Still, these overlook the bigger risks and longer-term impacts of poor indoor air quality.

Without our knowledge, we can be exposed to a number of harmful pollutants that with inadequate ventilation can become trapped inside indoor environments with no way of escaping to the outside world. Remaining undetected for long periods of time, exposure to polluted air can gradually chip away at staff wellbeing and productivity, not only contributing towards the exacerbation of a range of respiratory and health conditions such as COPD, asthma and heart disease but also leading to reduced cognitive performance* in some cases.

With UK workers clocking up hundreds upon hundreds of hours indoors each year, businesses are now being presented with a challenge, but also a big opportunity, to bolster the quality of air within workplace environments. Proper, future-proofed ventilation has a significant bearing on general wellbeing and quality of life. Creating ‘safe havens’ for workers has never been a higher priority for companies than it is right now: unquestionably, it’s an essential step to take towards emerging from this global health crisis.


Hitting the minimum requirements isn’t enough

Part F of the UK Building Regulations mandates the performance of ventilation systems to achieve the desired inflow of fresh air and outflow of pollutants within buildings. At present, however, Part F only sets minimum requirements for the rate of fresh airflow into a building – to ensure there is a sufficient supply of fresh air to push out pollutants. It does not stipulate requirements for how that fresh air is circulated once it is within the building envelope.

Although this is not a major issue for smaller buildings, it becomes more problematic the more extensive the internal space and the greater the area supplied by a given ventilation system. For example, someone sitting next to a ventilation terminal in a large office will receive an optimal flow of fresh air when the system is functioning as needed. However, those sitting at the other end of the office are likely to receive a poorer circulation of fresh air that would have passed across their colleagues before it reaches them. This frequent situation can lead to pathogens being picked up while circulating across the office, which is particularly concerning for those sitting in poorly ventilated spaces within a building every day; the air they breathe may well be quality measurably worse than that of their colleagues.

This can be further complicated when the layout of a building is changed – either through extension or refurbishment. What may have been an effective method of air circulation when a building was first built may no longer be suitable. For example, when an internal structure of an office is modified due to a change of use or increase in personnel. In that case, it is not possible to modify the ventilation system accordingly and, consequently, puts the health of those occupying the building at greater risk. Most ventilation systems do not have the flexibility to adapt to these changes to maintain an adequate supply of fresh air for all individuals. It will need renewed consultation to assess the requirement and maintenance going forward.

How ventilation can deliver a healthier environment for the future

The UK Government recently recognised air pollution as the most significant environmental risk to public health, costing the economy around £20bn and contributing to 20,000 premature deaths every year. Given that we spend around 90% of our time indoors, addressing the quality of the air we breathe when inside – in terms of pollutants from external sources and pathogens circulating within – is critical to bringing those figures down.

The challenge of managing the spread of pathogens within buildings is one where IAQ significantly comes into play, and we must recognise the wider impact it can have on the general wellbeing of building occupants. It's time that the industry focuses its considerable expertise to ensure we work together to keep everyone healthy within mass-occupancy workplaces. Revising legislation to provide more explicit requirements on how air quality is managed across different areas of a working building is crucial. We must play a significant role in helping to ensure advances in ventilation technology help shape the indoor spaces of the future.

Indoor air quality is much more than a ‘tick box exercise’

It’s become all-too-clear, as this pandemic has progressed, that COVID-19 as well as other illnesses can be spread through poorly ventilated spaces. The UK Government now states that ventilation should be considered as part of making all workplaces COVID-secure, while Public Health England guidance recognises that, ‘The transmission of COVID-19 is thought to occur mainly through respiratory droplets generated by coughing and sneezing and through contact with contaminated surfaces. The predominant modes of transmission are assumed to be droplet and contact’.

That’s why it’s vital, now more so than ever, for companies to take steps to ensure that air quality is as good as it can possibly be – re-evaluating current systems that are in place, changing and cleaning filters regularly and where required a full MOT across the building to ensure it is optimising air flow and ventilation. It’s much more than just a box to be ticked in response to a crisis, it should be an annual necessity for the future.

 Stuart Smith is Group Sales Director at Nuaire

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