Addressing indoor environmental quality in buildings: Part 1

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“…design is about meeting real human needs and not just creating attractive or dramatic surroundings.” 

Anita Baltimore, FASID

Today, the majority of activities take place within a built environment. In fact, people are spending approximately 90% of their time indoors. For this reason, it’s important to consider the potential exposure to harmful contaminants and the adverse effects that stem from this indoor lifestyle. Some questions to consider are: What is the indoor environmental quality like? Why does it matter? And how can you address it through improving indoor air quality? 

Analyzing and improving indoor environmental quality is a way to minimize potentially harmful effects from indoor spaces.

Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) is defined as the physical conditions within a building and how they affect the humans residing within it. This includes indoor air quality (IAQ), illumination, acoustics, and thermal conditions. 

Why indoor environmental quality matters

“The built environment has direct and indirect effects on mental health.” 

Dr. G. Evans, Departments of Design and Environmental Analysis and Human Development, Cornell University

It’s in both the building owners’ and operators’ best interests to address IEQ concerns through improvements to existing structures or in collaboration with architects and contractors during the planning of new buildings. A high-quality indoor environment will:

  1. Promote employee well-being and satisfaction
    The overarching purpose of improving IEQ is to improve employee health and reduce rates of “sick building syndrome” and building-related illnesses.
  2. Improve employee performance & productivity
    Research has consistently shown that improving IEQ in office spaces has direct correlations with increased work productivity and therefore greater returns on investment for businesses.
  3. Increase building value
    Putting people at the center of a building’s design will increase the value of the building and reduce the chances of environmental liabilities. The Indoor Environmental Quality LEED Category rewards project teams who prioritize IAQ, thermal, acoustic, and visual comfort.

Strategies for addressing IEQ are centered on improving occupants’ physical and mental health, quality of life, and efficiency through environmental design.

Focusing on indoor environmental quality from inception to operation

Improving Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)

IAQ is the quality of air inside a building. It is measured by the concentration of pollutants and thermal conditions that could potentially impact peoples’ health, satisfaction, and productivity. Breathing healthy air is crucial for avoiding health complications like headaches, eye irritation, allergies, and fatigue.

Buildings should aim to meet or exceed the guidelines defined by ASHRAE Standards. A total of two LEED v4 points are possible with a successful completion of an indoor air quality assessment. IAQ levels are heavily influenced by ventilation systems and chemical contents of materials used for or within the building. 

Ensuring proper ventilation 

Proper ventilation improves the IAQ by removing odors, moisture, and toxins from the air, and maintaining comfortable temperatures throughout the building. The key to a well-ventilated space is a thoughtfully designed and maintained heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system.  

Pathways for natural ventilation should be planned from the start. Rather than distributing pollutants throughout the air with poorly maintained ventilation ducts, seal ducts during construction. Also consider intake and duct placement, along with how much air your system is distributing. If the climate allows, look to natural ventilation for energy savings of up to 10-30%

HVAC systems play a pivotal role in maintaining healthy humidity levels, which is important for preventing mold and other toxins. Ideal relative humidity levels fall around 30-60% and can be easily measured with a low-cost hygrometer. This is important to notify building managers of high CO2 levels and to avoid overventilation. 

In addition to monitoring air quality levels, building managers must ensure HVAC systems are properly maintained or risk pollutants building up in vents being distributed throughout the building. High MERV air filters should be installed in all systems to help catch particles. Changing these air filters on a regular basis is another must for maintaining a healthy environment. 

Reducing Airborne pollutants

Another way to improve IAQ is by reducing the presence of pollutants. Many binders, adhesives, finishes, and cleaning products contain high levels of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), which contribute to both short- and long-term health effects. For this reason, it’s necessary to increase ventilation around VOCs and opt for products with low or no-VOC levels. Our GREENGUARD certification makes it easy to identify products with low chemical emission levels, helping improve IAQ.

Next steps 

Ensuring buildings have proper ventilation and a low concentration of airborne pollutants is essential to improve the overall indoor environmental quality. These are just a few ways to improve IEQ. Check out part 2 of this series to learn about more elements that play a role in IEQ and how it can be improved. 

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