For healthier indoor air quality, harness technology
What role can technology play in the delivery of healthier buildings, improved indoor air quality, and enhanced occupier wellbeing?
If the next few months are likely to bring a steady flow of employees back into offices, the onus is on business owners, and landlords, to increase focus on employee health, which means creating healthier workplaces. While employers may find it easier to encourage staff to return to the workplace with promises of hybrid working, increased hygiene and socially distanced desks, we understand that ventilation and indoor air quality (IAQ) will also feature highly on the list of employee concerns.
Although government ad campaigns have encouraged opening windows to let in fresh air to dissipate Covid germs – this is not always possible, or advisable, in the workplace. In urban environments where air pollution on the street outside is above safe levels, opening a window will let in untreated air and vehicle exhaust fumes, exposing occupants to particulate matter (composed of black carbon, sulphate, nitrates, ammonia, sodium chloride, and mineral dust). This poses health risks of its own, because particles travel into lungs and the bloodstream, with the potential risk of cardiovascular and respiratory disease.
Get smarter: healthy buildings delivered by data
For occupiers to leave their homes and gardens to come back into an office, building owners require data to be confident in their ability to offer clean environments. The quest for this data and the need to make healthier workplaces has prompted many landlords to harness the power of technology. Forward-thinking developments such as UV light air purification, touchless fixtures and hi-tech filters in ventilation systems are becoming more and more common, as are indoor air quality measurement sensors such as those produced by Awair and monitored by AirRated.
The UK government has included proposals on how to improve ventilation in its consultation on the future of building regulations. Under the plans, offices would have to use indoor air ventilation systems that can provide fresh air at 50% higher rates than the existing minimum standards, although many have exceeded the building regulation requirements for years.
But the drive to healthier workplaces doesn’t necessarily mean overhauling or replacing HVAC systems. Smart building technology platforms can analyse and optimise existing systems to modernise existing buildings. These intelligent building operating systems, such as Workman’s IBOS, developed in conjunction with Bubll Automation, automates, analyses and optimises buildings’ systems to make them truly smart.
IBOS works via remote connectivity to monitor all occupier comfort factors, such as indoor air quality, lighting, safety and emergency systems around the clock, with built-in alarms and notifications. It enables accurate and robust data, so that occupiers can understand the temperature and indoor air quality levels in their section of the building. It creates cleaner air by informing building managers exactly when to replace air conditioning filters, for example. Rather than arbitrarily replacing filters twice a year, these can be replaced on an as-needs basis, whether that is once a year or six times.
With a much higher degree of control, IBOS allows building owners to address the issue of indoor air quality by taking advantage of technology to measure carbon dioxide – and other chemical pollutant levels – and make necessary adjustments. And, because it takes a lot more energy to push air through a dirty filter than a clean filter, savings are made in terms of cost and carbon.
Healthy workplaces are key to the mental and physical health of employees. There are also gains to be made in productivity, especially since the post-lunch slump – when CO2 levels are at their peak – can be avoided by programming IBOS to boost indoor air circulation around this time of day.
Different sections of the building can benefit from increased levels of ventilation, depending on the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. This also applies to heating and cooling, which can be controlled at granular levels, according to numbers and demographics of people using individual areas of the building.
Mind the workplace gender data gap
Of course, not all employees are equal. There is a gender data gap in the workplace, with office temperatures and chemical analysis being largely based on male data rather than a combination of both female and male data. The 2019 book, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Design for Men, by Caroline Criado Perez, shows that the formula to determine a standard office temperature was developed in the 1960s around the metabolic resting rate of the average man. But a recent Dutch study found that the metabolic rate of young adult females performing light office work is significantly lower than the standard values for men doing the same activity. In fact, the formula may overestimate female metabolic rate by as much as 35%, meaning that current offices are on average five degrees too cold for women.
These differences also apply to indoor air quality itself, because men and women have different immune systems and hormones, which can play a role in how chemicals are absorbed. Women tend to be smaller than men and have thinner skin, both of which can lower the level of toxins they can be safely exposed to.
For workplaces to be truly smart, and operate at safe levels for all, data around the needs of employees needs to be collected from groups reflective of today’s workforce, not just the male contingent.
Healthy buildings mean healthy income
In the meantime, data afforded by IBOS gives landlords better insight into how they can improve the environment and the wellbeing of occupiers. Rules can be set within the system to reduce imbalances across an office as well as optimising energy use, while also keeping everybody as happy and comfortable as possible within their specific area of the office.
There are significant bottom-line gains to be made. In the wake of the pandemic, the premium for healthy spaces is likely to increase. By deploying technological solutions like IBOS, building owners can help keep occupiers safe from Covid, while providing healthier and therefore more attractive workplaces, on-demand.
By James Hallworth MRICS, Senior Associate, Head of Building Technology