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  • Writer's pictureJosh Veblen

Sick of Sick Buildings?

Updated: Jan 7

Between work and home, Americans spend most of their time indoors—up to 90%. So it’s easy to understand why the built environment impacts our physical and mental health. Poor air quality, inadequate ventilation, humidity, noise, and poor lighting can have negative health consequences for inhabitants.

One of the responses to the energy crisis in the 1970s was to seal up our buildings to reduce heating and cooling requirements. An unfortunate consequence of that is chronically under-ventilated indoor environments and stagnant air, resulting in what we now refer to as “Sick Building Syndrome" or SBS.

The recent pandemic is prompting dramatic changes to building operations. Employees have much higher expectations of their work environment—especially in relation to air quality, safety, comfort, and health.

There’s something in the air…

Recent research shows that pandemic-related anxiety around indoor air quality (IAQ) in the workplace affects 50% of office workers. Identifying the sources of pollution within a building is a good first step toward improving IAQ. Common pollution sources include:

  • Particulate matter. Particulate matter is a mixture of solid and/or liquid particles of various sizes suspended in the air. These inhalable particles can result in eye, nose, and throat irritation; aggravation of coronary and respiratory disease symptoms; and premature death in people with heart or lung disease.

  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Building materials, furnishings, and consumer products can worsen indoor air quality. VOCs are liquids or solids used in consumer products that turn into gas when exposed to air and sunlight. Some VOCs have been linked to asthma, cancer, and reproductive harm, as well as damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Household cleaners, paint removers, flooring materials, and carpeting are just a few of the thousands of items that may contain VOCs.

  • Mold resulting from humidity and/or plumbing issues. The health of those who live, learn, or work in damp buildings has been a growing concern for many years. Research has found that people who spend time in damp buildings report health problems including respiratory infections and eczema. Improved HVAC operation, ultraviolet lights, and air purifiers can help remove mold and mildew.

Optimizing HVAC operation is critical for maintaining good indoor air quality. Poorly ventilated spaces result in several health issues, including headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, and sinus congestion. These, in turn, result in increased absences and short-term sick leave. Lack of adequate ventilation also has a negative impact on cognitive function, response times, ability to focus, and productivity.

On the other hand, recent research has found that productivity, decision-making, strategizing, and planning improve for employees who work in buildings where fresh air is adequately circulated. Buildings with low CO² concentrations and high ventilation rates can lead to performance improvements of up to 8%. Joseph Allen, who runs a major public health research project at Harvard University, estimates that improving IAQ can result in productivity benefits of $6,500 per person, per year.

If your HVAC system is well-maintained but energy-intensive, you might consider retrofitting it to improve performance. You can retrofit both air conditioners and heating equipment. The Department of Energy has found that you can save up to 35% annually in energy costs by adding or replacing parts. If your existing HVAC system is 10+ years old, you can save up to 20% on heating and cooling costs by replacing it. Newer models have higher SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio) ratings, which means much greater energy efficiency and lower energy/operational costs.

The problem with fluorescent lighting

The problem with fluorescent light fixtures is that they contain toxic materials (mercury and phosphorus), have a short lifespan (anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 hours), are omnidirectional (meaning they can't be focused), emit ultraviolet light, need time to warm up, and they buzz. All of which can have very negative effects on employee well-being.

As a result, research conducted by the American Society of Interior Design found that 68% of workers/employees complain about the lighting in their buildings.

The transition away from fluorescent lighting fixtures toward LED technology is well underway. The LED industry has made substantial advancements over the past few years. In addition to longer life, lower maintenance, and dramatically lower energy costs, LED lighting now delivers advanced control options which dramatically improve occupant comfort and productivity. Intelligent and flexible lighting solutions can be tuned to different color temperatures, automated to respond to ambient daylight, and dimmed in minute increments.

Is it hot in here?

Numerous studies link employee productivity to workplace temperature. One of the key findings is that employees are most productive when their workplace temperature is between 69.8 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures outside of that range result in more errors, reduced speed, and impaired concentration.

Additionally, employees are more prone to fatigue and irritability when working in higher temperatures.

A Cornell University study found that employee productivity tends to decrease suddenly as temperatures drop below 68°F. Buildings that are too cold also increase the incidence of respiratory infections which, in turn, increase absences and sick leave.

At the other end of the scale, a study conducted by the University of Chicago found that productivity drops by as much as 4% per degree when temperatures rise above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. If interior temperatures are too high, employee performance—including everything from an ability to make decisions to performing simple cognitive tasks—drops.

Managing a building’s health

A healthy building promotes the health and productivity of its occupants. According to 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building, factors influencing the health of a building include ventilation, air quality, temperature, moisture, security, lighting, noise, water quality, and dust and pests.

Managing all the above manually can be overwhelming. Installing a quality Building. Automation System (BAS) is a highly effective way to create and maintain the health of a building. By providing an overarching control function, building automation systems improve a facility’s health in four key ways:

  1. BAS contol the building environment by regulating temperature, lighting, humidity, and ventilation to keep occupants comfortable. Occupancy sensors and scheduling also reduce energy waste by adjusting environmental systems when not needed.

  2. Monitor and control energy consumption. For example, BAS can monitor and adjust ventilation rates based on area ventilation rates. Studies have shown that BAS systems can reduce the energy output of HVAC systems by up to 70%.

  3. Monitor and correct system performance to ensure all systems are performing correctly, operating at peak performance for maximum efficiency. Sensors can also alert operators when preventative maintenance is needed.

  4. Provide security via fire, access, and surveillance systems.

A Clean Bill of Health

As owners gain a better understanding of the ways their buildings impact human health, they must work closely with engineers, architects, designers, and contractors to ensure their facilities do no harm. The buildings where we live, work, study, and socialize can and should positively impact their inhabitants.

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