With most of our time spent indoors (90% in a recent research by Harvard University), the need for healthy buildings, which are comfortable and sustainable too, is critical.
The current pandemic has highlighted the importance of these elements, making apparent the need for healthier environments within workplaces.
As the office space needs to value ‘people first’, thus ensuring occupants feel safe, an informed Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) – and overall Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) – strategy is the first step to help achieve this vital goal.
What is Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ)?
The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) defines IEQ as “the quality of a building’s environment in relation to the health and wellbeing of those who occupy space within it. IEQ is determined by many factors, including lighting, air quality, and damp conditions.”
Workplaces and the state of people’s health are often brought together in discussions.
This is due to the strong link existing between wellbeing, productivity and the state of the space in which we spend so much of our time in.
In fact, as complex environments, all buildings are comprised of several contaminants that can negatively affect our welfare. As found with COVID-19, sharing indoor space means opening people to the risk of catching and transmitting viruses (Allen and Marr, 2020).
A virus can spread by coughing, talking and even breathing, as the particles emitted disperse in the environment. Therefore, the indoor air quality becomes a vital element to keep occupiers’ in good health.
Where do indoor contaminants come from, and what are they?
Mostly, contaminants are micro-particles and gases released by:
- the same building materials,
- appliances and office machines,
- ambience dampness – which causes mould and bacteria to proliferate,
- outdoor pollutants & viruses,
- cleaning products,
- and more.
Temperatures, humidity and ventilation, too, have been traced back to be the causes for people’s poor health in a building. It is well known the effects of bad indoor air quality can be critical on our health, with both short-term and long-term consequences.
Many studies have found that indoor air can sometimes have higher adverse effects on people than outside air, with professionals’ cognitive performance and productivity being heavily affected and reduced by the higher levels of pollutants in the environment.
Even if it is still not clear what exactly causes sick building syndrome (NHS), its symptoms are probably the result of a combination of factors:
- poor ventilation or obsolete/poorly maintained air conditioning systems (HVACs)
- unbalanced indoor relative humidity levels
- indoor pollutant and dust, smoke, fumes or fabric fibres in the air
- poor lighting conditions and insufficient exposure to natural light
How can we ensure our workplace is a healthy place?
Spending so much time indoors, it is vital to our wellbeing that buildings meet recognised standards for healthy environments.
Well-known IEQ frameworks do precisely that. They rate on health performance, demonstrating how to provide a quality and safe environment that occupiers can reliably own and experience.
Besides, improved building indoor environment is not just driven by the occupiers’ need for better wellbeing and productivity. Good IEQ – and IAQ – standards also influence the value of the building itself and are, therefore, a strong signal of its standing for owners and investors alike.
Indoor Environmental Quality certifications
Building certifications such as the UK BREEAM, as an example, consider and set a framework for air quality in buildings, linking it to the health and wellbeing of occupiers. This category in particular aims at “encouraging a healthy internal environment through the specification and installation of appropriate ventilation, equipment and finishes”.
In late 2019, a proposal for an IEQ indicator, called TAIL, was included in the EU project ALDREN. TAIL is the acronym for Thermal environment, Acoustic environment, Indoor Air Quality and Lighting (REHVA). The four elements of TAIL all come together to offer a measure of Indoor Environment Quality helpful for all stakeholders, may they be property owners, investors or facility managers.
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification is a green building rating system recognised worldwide. Achieving this framework means having a ‘healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green building’, providing therefore a standard to measure sustainability in the built environment.
The link to Net-zero Energy Building (nZEB) efficiency
Buildings are accountable for 36% of global final energy use and 39% of energy and process-related CO2 emissions (read more: How IoT is Making Workplaces Sustainable). As crucial contributors – with their heavily energy-intensive systems – to the global energy waste and the current climate crisis, buildings need to be the focus of careful planning to make them more efficient, if not give them the tools to become energy-sufficient.
A better indoor environment is an essential part of net-zero energy buildings (nZEB), as REHVA points out.
IEQ takes into account some of the most demanding systems of a building energy consumption (air conditioning, heating, lighting, etc.). Reaching net-zero energy, however, can’t come at the detriment of people’s wellbeing. Energy efficiency and a healthy indoor environment need to be considered together to reach these goals.
How to efficiently measure and manage IEQ and IAQ in the workplace with IoT
The heating, ventilation and air conditioning system (HVAC) and lighting system of office buildings are responsible for providing the right air, temperature and humidity conditions, and correct mix of natural and artificial lights for occupiers to feel well and productive throughout the day. If these systems underperform, people may start to feel tired or drowsy, or even fall ill in the worst cases.
A smart workplace app provides an integrated solution for landlords and FMs to control and monitor the IAQ of the building. By integrating the buildings system in one solution, landlords and occupiers have access to the building and the workspace HVAC and lighting, empowering them in their efforts to improve wellbeing.
Monitoring the standards of ratio outside/inside air which circulates in the building – to meet recommended ventilation rates – could help control the transmission of COVID-19, too. At the current time, researchers recognise the primary means of diffusion occurs when respiratory droplets are emitted nearby others. However, there is a likelihood of them ending up in the air, with studies being conducted to determine the possibility of it being airborne. Therefore, an efficient IAQ could very well be critical in coping the spread.
IoT comes to the help of FMs by easily integrating the different systems into a single platform, without the need for hard wiring. By cloud-connecting the systems to sensors applied throughout the building, the integrated smart building platform can provide the tools needed to provide a healthier facility.
Smart Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) sensors help facility managers analyse and monitor the levels of airborne particulate concentration in the workplace. Working as a node between the wireless smart IAQ devices and the building management system (BMS), an integrated workplace facility management (IWFM) platform such as Smart Spaces can provide operators with clear visualisation, insights and real-time control over the ventilation, temperature and humidity in the building. Facility managers can benefit from analysis of historical trends, too, for a comprehensive view and support to their audits needs.
Most commonly, smart sensors can detect:
- Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
- Relative Humidity (RH)
- Particulate PM 0.5 & PM 2.5
- Nitrogen Dioxide (NOX)
- Carbon Monoxide (CO)
Thanks to machine learning and the power of predictive analytics, the platform boosts the efficiency of all operations. In fact, it doesn’t just provide real-time data and visualisation but lets FMs remotely control the systems and gives them the insights needed to make informed decisions.
The smart workplace app also supports facility managers keep an eye on, and execute maintenance of, the building HVAC, lighting systems, solar panels, and more. Not only, landlords and occupiers are empowered in their goals toward improved sustainability thanks to the continuously-updated visualisation of the energy consumption and ability to set energy-saving targets.
Healthier Buildings for Healthier People
High standards of IAQ are an invaluable signal to occupiers that the workplace has been fitted to have people’s wellbeing as a priority.
Because of COVID-19, and the way viruses spread, the question of how we can make office buildings safe gets more complex. Experts suggest indoor air quality could provide to be a valuable answer in de-risking spaces.
An integrated smart app delivering real-time monitoring and control of the building systems – which also empowers occupiers by providing control of their own office space – could be the vehicle to achieve this successfully.
To get healthier, more productive people in the workplace, we need to make way for better indoor environments first. People are invaluable resources in organisations, accounting for up to 90% of operating costs (UKGBC) and having a turnover cost of 33% of an annual salary (Forbes).
Even a small improvement in IEQ means improving not just the quality of life in the workplace but getting invaluable gains from the improved productivity, reduced absenteeism and reduced turnover.