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Best Practices for Indoor Air Quality in Green Buildings

Image of Jon Schoenfeld
Jon Schoenfeld

A 2015 Rutgers University study looked at whether green building tax credits and compliance with certification programs contributed positively to improving indoor air quality in green buildings and its relation to occupant health. Over the course of five years, researchers measured indoor air quality at a residential high-rise complex, using an industrial hygiene contractor to conduct annual air quality assessments. It compared these measurements to conventionally-built residential buildings, following New York’s Green Building Tax Credit (GBTC) and Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) requirements. 

Annual reviews were used to determine whether implementation of green building design resulted in better air quality. Measurements showed that these designs did improve air quality in certain areas, though could not confirm that it did in others. In other words, the fact that a structure is designed according to green building standards doesn’t necessarily mean it offers greater health and safety protection.

Improving indoor air quality should be a priority in all buildings, but particularly those designed with environmental responsibility in mind. However, achieving this requires going beyond established green building guidelines; it means understanding and implementing best practices specifically for air quality. Through the combination of IoT sensors and advanced analytics software, you can take meaningful steps toward better indoor air quality in green buildings.

Setting Air Quality Goals

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ranked indoor air pollution as a top environmental risk to public health. As concerns about air quality grow, organizations committed to promoting safer indoor environments have developed best practices and recommendations for monitoring air quality indoors. These can be invaluable resources for managers of green buildings seeking to develop effective strategies that improve air quality.

Many best practices are most easily implemented by using cutting-edge technologies to regulate HVAC systems and purification systems, allowing green buildings to bring in fresh air while filtering out harmful microbes and particulates. In areas where outdoor air is highly polluted, it is important to monitor outdoor air as well. 

World Green Building Council

Indoor air quality is a key area of focus for the World Green Building Council (WGBC), which works to improve human health and reduce the environmental impact of built environments. Along with acting to limit outdoor air pollution caused by building operations and construction, the WGBC seeks to raise awareness about the critical role of indoor air quality and the importance of air quality monitoring.

Its goals include: 

  • Developing awareness about how structural materials, quality construction, and retrofitting techniques can lower the risk of toxic molds and other dangerous microbes. 
  • Endorsing ventilation strategies to prioritize health in the management of indoor air quality. 
  • Increasing understanding of and solutions for environmental threats from pollutants. 
  • Promoting sustainable, non-toxic, and air-cleansing materials to limit pollutants within buildings. 
  • Protecting occupants from polluted outdoor air entering buildings. 

Integrating these priorities in your facilities management strategy is an excellent starting point for improving indoor air quality in green buildings. What exactly that looks like will depend on the specifics of your facilities and may be influenced by location, building infrastructure, how the building is used currently, and how it has been used in the past. 

In all cases, outdoor air quality will inevitably affect indoor air quality, especially if HVAC systems venting in outside air lack sufficient filtration capacity. Analyzing outdoor air quality is a universally important part of achieving better air quality indoors. 

LEED Requirements for Existing Buildings

LEED certification for minimum indoor air quality in green buildings involves scoring buildings according to a standardized point system to determine each building’s level of compliance. By establishing minimum standards for both new and existing structures, LEED encourages building owners and managers to create conditions to adequately ventilate spaces. In this way, buildings can achieve various certification levels, improving comfort and safeguarding the health of building occupants. 

Consider the following: 

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, and other respiratory diseases worsen when particulate matter (PM) concentrations are high. 
  • PM concentrations that indicate insufficient air filtration or ventilation may contribute to the spread of viruses, including Covid-19. 
  • High carbon dioxide concentrations—often the result of inadequate ventilation or overcrowding—can cause headaches, nausea, fatigue, and compromised mental performance. Very high levels can lead to oxygen deprivation.
  • Keeping relative humidity between 40%-60% helps diminish disease transmission. 

The evidence is clear that indoor air quality can have a significant impact on short and long-term health. But by taking smart steps, such as those recommended by LEED, and verifying the impact of improvements, you can create a safe environment that supports wellbeing.

Understanding Efficacy

Since the emergence of Covid-19, awareness about the potential health effects of poor indoor air quality has risen dramatically. To ease concerns, many building owners have sought out technological solutions that promise to keep air clean and free from harmful particles. Unfortunately, some of these solutions are poor investments and fail to offer the protection they claim to provide.

There is no magical fix to improve indoor air quality in green buildings, or conventional structures for that matter. But some products and services offer no benefits at all. This is particularly true of companies that embrace pseudo-science and employ deceitful advertising that promotes ineffective strategies to improve indoor air quality, such as using ionic air purifiers.

Though most such products are harmless and their usage may have a certain basis in science, they do not actually clean indoor air. For example, using small bags of charcoal and Himalayan salt lamps to improve air quality may have a modicum of logic to it, but, in practice, their scale is much too small to make a difference. Likewise, while plants and green spaces in commercial buildings can help improve productivity and health for occupants, having employees keep potted plants at their desks will not improve air quality in any meaningful way. 

Ultraviolet (UV), however, can have beneficial effects on indoor air quality. Significantly, it can help disinfect HVAC systems by killing bacteria, viruses, and even mold without using chemicals that can make indoor air more toxic. Often employed in medical and biological research facilities, it is a safe way to reduce contaminants within ventilation systems when used correctly. 

Maintaining Indoor Air Quality in Green Buildings

The use of building management system software and intelligent analytics can make safeguarding indoor air quality easier. The combination of sensors and analytics software helps you make sense of complex air quality data, not only identifying contaminants, but also alerting you to underperforming ventilation systems and making automatic adjustments to ensure safety in real time. Additionally, the insights provided by an advanced analytics platform can be used to identify other opportunities for improvement, create smart automation strategies that maximize air quality, and verify upgrades and fixes. In this way, smart systems can play an integral role in achieving healthier, more environmentally responsible spaces.

Buildings IOT can help improve the indoor air quality in green buildings and other built environments through advanced software and services. Contact us to learn more.

 

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