Now is the time to get indoor air quality provision right

Hern Yau
Hern Yau

To date, less attention has been given to the quality of indoor air in comparison to outdoor air and pollution. According to SAGE member Professor Cath Noakes, an estimated 15% of all Covid-19 deaths can be attributed to poor air quality, meaning attention is rightly turning to indoor air as well – and ventilation is now one of the biggest challenges facing building and facilities managers today. Hern Yau of Mitsubishi Electric discusses why attention is rightly turning to indoor air quality.

Outside of the transmission of airborne viruses like Covid-19, ventilation has also been linked to improved productivity, better sleep, and a reduction in respiratory health conditions. However, many buildings are still under-ventilated, despite long-standing regulatory requirements.

This renewed focus on indoor air quality presents an important opportunity to tackle the issue head-on, and invest in long-term, sustainable solutions for achieving and maintaining good indoor air quality. To do so, the first step is to understand the levels of air quality, both inside and outside a building. Then, a clear plan for improvement can be put in place, as well as selecting the right technology in order to support ventilation and the provision of clean, healthy air going forwards.

This byline outlines simple steps that anyone working with buildings can take to achieve and maintain good indoor air quality.

1. Understanding air quality levels

The first step towards improving air quality and ventilation is to understand what the current air quality levels are, both inside and outside a building. This can help identify whether any improvements need to be made, and where.

To do so, it will be helpful to invest in technology like air quality measurement equipment, which supports the collection, storage, and analysis of pollution both in and around a building. While hand-held devices, for example, are useful for tracking down the root source of any ongoing issues, for continuous monitoring it’s worth considering having monitors installed both in and around a building.

Having a benchmark for comparison will also be important for assessing whether improvements to air quality are required. For both commercial and residential spaces, this can be found in the latest Part F of the Building Regulations.

Part F reflects the growing understanding of the impact of indoor air quality on occupant health. For commercial spaces, there are new standards for minimising the intake of external air pollutants if they exceed limits set out in the legislation – or if the building is located close to sources of pollution. This might include buildings close to busy roads or near combustion plants such as heating systems.

For existing non-dwellings, Part F also states that any work carried out must not result in any degradation of the ventilation standards in the building.  When building work in an existing building includes the ventilation system, it must meet the relevant standards outlined in the updated guidance in Part F 2021.

2. Conducting a building review

Conducting a building review with an indoor air quality expert can help to better understand whether any system or design components are affecting the overall quality of air inside a building – and how to combat this going forwards.

An effective approach can be to review different areas of a building as ‘zones’, as they will likely differ in use and type of occupancy. A school, for example, will include classrooms that may be occupied by more than 30 students and a teacher for most of the day, as well as an assembly hall or gym which is occupied by larger groups less frequently. In an office building, there will also likely be some open plan areas, along with meeting rooms, a staff kitchen, and an atrium.

Taking the approach of splitting each area into zones will allow various issues affecting indoor air quality to be treated individually. For example, if new equipment is needed to improve indoor air quality, each area may benefit from different solutions – and it’s almost certain that each zone will require a unique approach to measurement and long-term maintenance.

Buildings as safe havens cover

Once a building review has been conducted, it can also be useful to categorise actions by their level of urgency. This will make it possible to prioritise any areas requiring urgent attention, starting with spaces that don’t have a ventilation system with modern filtration. This will also allow for any less-urgent actions to be identified, helping to inform the development of medium and long-term plans for improvement-as well as the maintenance of areas with good air quality.

 3. Selecting the right technology

Every building is different, which means that no single piece of technology or solution will guarantee the best level of indoor air quality across them all. Luckily, there are multiple types of ventilation and air filtration systems available, all designed for different requirements. 

The first is simply natural ventilation – which supplies and removes air from a building without any mechanical equipment, and could be as straightforward as opening the window.

For spaces where there is no access to natural ventilation, mechanical ventilation and heat recovery (MVHR) can make use of fans and other equipment to move air into and out of a building, and use the energy from warm, extracted air to pre-heat air entering the building.

Another option is air conditioning, which has the primary role of improving comfort conditions for occupants. While ventilation must be at the heart of indoor air quality, air conditioning can help to ensure that indoor temperatures are comfortable throughout the year, as well as remove humidity from the air and reduce the potential for mold contamination.

Filtration and air conditioning should be a consideration, as it is one of the most important factors in achieving good indoor air quality. Filters in a ventilation system remove unwanted contaminants from the air as it enters the building, with its importance having been widely recognised over the past few years - reflected in the emergence of standards and guidelines which help to identify the best filters for a building’s requirements.

While the pandemic has taught us a tremendous amount about the importance of better ventilation to make buildings more infection resilient, the link between good ventilation and better sleep, productivity, and a reduction in respiratory health conditions has been known for decades. We know that far too many buildings are simply under-ventilated despite clear guidelines and regulatory requirements that have been in place for many years. Going forwards, it is essential that building owners and managers take the steps necessary for putting a strong strategy for indoor air quality in place, and prioritise maintaining good indoor air quality for the long term.

For more information on achieving good indoor air quality, you can find BESA’s ‘Building’s as Safe Havens’ guide, developed with support from Mitsubishi Electric below.

Hern Yau is Product Manager at Mitsubishi Electric

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