Arup Thoughts: Designing for better indoor air quality

Even with well-designed ventilation systems, poor understanding by occupants of how they work can often lead to them being ineffective.


Indoor air quality needs to be a higher priority during the design process of living and working spaces because it is vital to occupant health and wellbeing. Courtesy: ArupPeople around the world spend increasing amounts of time in air-tight environments—buildings where a focus on energy efficiency often emphasizes the value of centrally controlled conditions over indoor air quality. We need to make indoor air quality a higher priority during the design process if we're to successfully support occupants' health and well-being.

Studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have found that indoor air pollution can potentially be significantly worse than outdoor. Given that people spend up to 90% of their time indoors, the quality and effects of indoor air needs more attention. Indeed, public health awareness of indoor air quality lags well behind existing concerns about city smog and vehicles' production of carbon monoxide and other pollutants.

Even with well-designed ventilation systems, poor understanding by occupants of how these systems work can often lead to them being ineffective. In addition, a lack of understanding of the sources of harmful contaminants prevents occupants from avoiding high-emission products.

Poor indoor air quality can severely impact an occupant's health and well-being, causing drowsiness, headaches, and skin irritation through to chronic respiratory problems and cancer. It can also negatively impact the productivity and commercial and operational performance of a building's occupants.

Limiting the sources of contaminants within a property is key. A large proportion of harmful emissions encountered within buildings can be attributed to materials—construction materials as well as occupant activities, e.g., cleaning products, perfumes, etc. By substituting lower-emission products, these sources can be reduced or removed, leading to significant improvements in the quality of indoor air. And these improvements can often be achieved without additional cost.

The issue also takes different forms depending on where in the world people live and work. More than 3 billion people still cook and heat their homes using open fires and leaky stoves. Improvements to the type of fuels used and the level of ventilation are key. A recent study in Delhi, India, found that 34% of people who spend a lot of time in offices and homes may suffer from respiratory diseases, and more than 82% of offices in the capital have unhealthy air quality.

Legislation relating to indoor air quality varies globally. For example, there is no legislation in the U.K. relating to emissions from products inside buildings, such as flooring products and adhesives that will often emit volatile organic compounds. Regulation could be increased or tightened, but it will still take an increased public awareness about indoor air quality issues before this will gain traction. We can't afford to wait, and so I advocate for owners and occupiers to take their own action, for example, by selecting low-emitting construction and furnishing materials.

Recognized guidance on how to improve indoor air quality does exist, take the ASHRAE Air Quality Guide as an example. And air quality inside buildings is also increasingly part of wider building standards like LEED, Building Research Establishmnet Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM), and WELL.

But for the design and architecture community, it's vital that there is increased attention paid to this aspect of design if we are to improve the level of health and well-being created within buildings.

Have you encountered any great examples of indoor air quality being prioritized in building design?

-Emily Walport is a graduate in the Materials team within Arup's Advanced Technology and Research group. Since starting at Arup, she has worked on a wide variety of projects, from atmospheric corrosion studies to research into additive manufacturing, and has been involved in developing Arup's healthy materials capabilities. This article originally appeared on Arup. Arup is a CFE Media content partner.

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