Are your meeting rooms stifling decision-making? Why and how we need to improve indoor air quality

Simon Jones
Simon Jones

Upgrading buildings’ ventilation, filtration, and other factors would not only decrease COVID transmission but also improve health and cognitive performance in general says Simon Jones of Ambisense.

Here is something you may not know - an adult human being breathes in and out up to 11,000 litres of air a day at rest? When you consider how much air one individual breathes in and out daily, it quickly becomes clear: wherever many people spend time together indoors, the air quality can rapidly decrease. Studies have found that in North America and Europe, we spend a staggering 90% of our time indoors - yet most of us rarely spare a thought for the quality of the air we breathe there.

 The real cost of poor air quality in the office

Have you ever stopped to consider how much poor air quality is costing your business? Chances are it’s more than you think. Whether it’s poor air quality affecting productivity or pollutants which can impact both physical and mental health, poor air quality in the office is an invisible threat. Yet it’s easy to justify not doing anything. The compound effect of a day off here or there or intermittently poor performance may be hard to see, but cumulatively the effect is real. Could it be reducing the performance of the business by 5%, 10%, or even 15%?

Also, it is now widely acknowledged that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, is frequently transmitted by airborne droplets called aerosols that hang in the air and can travel over short and long distances. This is a virus that spreads through the air almost exclusively indoors. If we start there, then the building matters and therefore improving indoor air quality is becoming even more crucial, especially with the return to the offices. 

Many people still don't feel safe coming into the office. While the hygiene theatre of signage and hand sanitisers is still with us, the fact that COVID was, and is, airborne, is not missed by the workforce. We must deal with the fact that poor ventilation is in part responsible for the spread of this disease, as indeed it is with many others. 

Over the past year, Ambisense has been involved in a number of large projects across the UK where customers installed air quality monitors around their office and campus to understand and improve ventilation levels. For the most part, particularly in large open plan areas, the data has shown that ventilation levels were often reasonable and this has helped enormously in returning staff and students to work and universities. 

Meeting rooms - the final frontier?

However, our data also highlighted something else. When we look across customers, deployments, projects & locations - over 80% of the spaces we monitor where there is a ventilation issue are meeting rooms, staff rooms & conference rooms. 

These small spaces often have lots of people in them and in many cases, building HVAC systems were designed and commissioned before the rooms were constructed, that’s if they have HVAC systems at all. So effective airflows can be much lower than the rest of the building. As a result, most buildings have pockets of localised air quality issues posing a risk to staff, customers, and visitors. We all know those spaces, and have all spent time with two unsatisfactory choices. Either sit there falling asleep or deal with traffic noise, heat or cold, when you open the windows. 

I call these meeting rooms the final frontier, for the following reasons:

  1. They are the hardest locations to solve. It is generally either obscenely expensive or technically non-viable to deliver more fresh air to these locations and there are often too many of them to manage to implement localised filtration/purification solutions in the short term. 'Hard' engineering solutions are, for the most part, ruled out. Using natural ventilation is really the only viable way - that is, managing occupancy and creating airflow by leaving doors and windows open to allow Co2 levels to dissipate.
  2. The ventilation requirements of these locations are hugely variable based on the number of people in these spaces, how heavily utilised they are, and how often the external weather plays a role too. Some spaces have a 2-person one to one, for an hour, then followed by a 3-hour, 10-person sales meeting, and finally a 2-hour, 6-person training session. In certain meetings, people talk a lot (sales meetings) while in other meetings only one person does the majority of the talking (training session). 
  3. Meeting rooms are where companies conduct their most important tasks. Sales and customer meetings, board meetings, investment committees, and training sessions. These are locations where companies need people to be together. The virtual version of all of these types of meetings is objectively worse. 

The return to the office nut is not cracked until people feel comfortable using these spaces.

Meeting Room

Understanding the spaces we occupy: Managing and predicting ventilation risks

Managing and predicting ventilation risks is a function of knowing how many people are and will be using a space, the actual ventilation levels, and the impact of outside factors like weather.

Under the hierarchy of controls, when it comes to air quality, our ability to remove or substitute an air quality hazard is often very limited. It falls to engineering and administrative controls to do the heavy lifting, especially if we want to avoid PPE.

However, in order to define the engineering and administrative controls required a number of missing jigsaw pieces from an environmental risk management perspective need to be understood: 

  1. Real-world ACHs
  2. Real-time and predicted AQ issues 
  3. Intelligence to optimise how a space should be used. 

For example, if a meeting room is heavily utilised, what should the ‘break’ time be between meetings - or could alternative spaces be used?

Whatever the future holds for this new hybrid work environment we all now face, understanding the spaces we occupy will have to be addressed if the workforce is going to be comfortable using them. And meeting rooms and board rooms will most certainly be on the frontline of this pursuit.

Understanding the quality of the air we are breathing and managing environmental risk with a good dose of transparency and intelligence will be critical.

Also, the movement for sustainable architecture has moved away from just concentrating on energy efficiency and water usage. Already, green buildings are rapidly incorporating holistic approaches that look at the human element in built environments. Building owners and developers are realising they don’t have to choose between efficiency and health factors when considering structural designs; in fact, the smart technologies used to enhance efficiency are the very same as those used to improve air quality. In commercial buildings, this can mean not only reduced costs and a smaller carbon footprint, but reduced employee absenteeism and illness, better productivity, and improved workplace satisfaction. 

Simon Jones is Head of Air Quality at Ambisense

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