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Healthy Buildings and Sustainability: How to Achieve Both

Joe Di Noto

Ensuring excellent indoor air quality (IAQ) and occupant comfort is essential for productivity and employee satisfaction - but is often assumed to be at odds with sustainable energy usage due to the energy-intensive nature of mechanical ventilation. However, this does not have to be the case. This article explores the relationship between healthy buildings and sustainability, and how innovative technologies and strategies can help achieve both goals.

Healthy Buildings Have Become Non-Negotiable

Investment in healthy buildings might previously have been seen as a luxury. Today, it’s a strategic priority for employers and employees – driven by concerns over health and productivity, as well as new regulatory pressures.

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly played a major role in putting IAQ at the forefront. Research shows that pandemic-related anxiety around air quality in the workplace affects 50% of office workers, and has a catastrophic impact on performance. Another recent study shows that employees are much more demanding about IAQ and ventilation in offices post-pandemic; 58% claimed that office design was now a major factor in choosing a place of work, with IAQ rated the most important design element. 

But it’s not just viral transmission. Extreme high and low temperatures brought on by global warming have meant that HVAC systems have had to work harder than ever to regulate the indoor environment, while growing issues like smog and forest fires pollute the air outdoors, requiring higher ventilation rates to bring office IAQ to within acceptable levels. 

These health hazards are also damaging to productivity. Research shows that IAQ directly correlates with cognition, and that poor ventilation results in higher rates of sick leave. Harvard researcher, Joseph Allen, has estimated that improving IAQ can result in productivity benefits of $6,500 per person, per year. 

None of this has escaped the attention of US legislators, who are rushing to usher in a new wave of regulations around IAQ. Right now, the CDC is developing standards that will mandate higher rates of ventilation, while ASHRAE has responded to White House pressure by announcing its own revised ventilation advice, which is likely to become legally binding. Rarely do politicians and the public agree so firmly on any issue, and business owners would be wise to take note. 

Environmental Concerns Highlight the Need to Reduce Energy Usage

While all of the above points to the need for better ventilation systems, there is no escaping the fact that HVAC is currently a huge source of CO2 emissions, and we can’t allow this problem to grow. To put this in perspective, buildings are responsible for 40% of global energy use, while HVAC systems use 40% of the energy of buildings. This means that HVAC systems take up 16% of global energy. Meanwhile, air cooling is responsible for 20% of electricity use in buildings globally. With scientists around the world telling us that we have reached a climate crisis point, it is now vital that these figures are drastically reduced.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that this is another area in which the public and politicians speak with the same voice. Governments around the globe are continually revising green building regulations upwards, resulting in harsh penalties for those who lag behind, while research shows that 80% of people now alter their purchasing decisions based on companies’ sustainability efforts. The US Inflation Reduction Act has recently made 50 billion available for improving energy efficiency in commercial and residential buildings, much of it in the form of tax credits. 

As if these factors weren’t enough to convince you, green building improvements also result in huge savings. Harvard’s Joseph Allen weighed in again on this topic, citing the $6.7bn collectively saved by US companies that implemented green building upgrades. Even more impressive is the Clean Air Act, a set of policies aimed at improving air quality that has saved the US economy over $2tn to date.

Resolving the Tension Between Green and Healthy Buildings

It might seem logical that green buildings that require less energy output are incompatible with healthy buildings that need high rates of energy-expensive ventilation. In fact, this doesn’t need to be the case. Modern air quality and ventilation technologies allow you to increase the performance of your HVAC system while also decreasing energy expenditure. Let’s look at a few ways you can achieve this. 

Upgrade HVAC Filters

HVAC technology advances at an alarming rate, meaning that upgrades can utterly transform your workplace IAQ. One time and cost-effective means of doing this is to upgrade your filters. As they are often out of sight, it is easy to forget the essential role that these devices perform, removing PM2.5, pollen, mold, and bacteria from breathing zones. Most US buildings still use Merv-8 filters, which capture around 20% of airborne particles. However, Federal Law now insists that government buildings use Merv-13 filters, which capture 80 - 90% of particles, including viral particles, such as COVID-19. 

Making this upgrade is one way to boost your building’s filtration system with no cost to the environment. In fact, MERV-13 filters will allow you to reduce your HVAC output while still maintaining the same high standards. 

Get HVAC Performance Tested

Like filters, HVAC systems are being outpaced in terms of performance and energy-efficiency by newer models. HVAC systems wear over time and a small perforation in the air duct might mean that yours is working a lot harder than it needs to. A performance test lets you know if this is the case and allows you to make the necessary repairs. This will benefit both the environment, because your repaired system won’t guzzle as much electricity, and your pocket, as you reap the significant energy savings. 

Improve HVAC Performance with IAQ Monitoring and Building Automation

One of the fastest routes to effective and energy-efficient HVAC is IAQ monitoring. This is because understanding a problem is the first step towards fixing or preventing it. By monitoring your air, you can discover which parameters are unacceptably high and make precise steps to counteract the situation, rather than simply overhauling the entire HVAC system. For instance, if PM2.5 is too high, new filters can be installed; if VOCs are too high, you can increase ventilation rates; if CO2 rates are above normal, you can spread people more evenly through the building or stagger breaks. Continuous monitoring can also prevent the need for more costly on-site performance tests.

Building automation systems (BAS) are one of the more powerful uses of continuous monitoring, delivering high-quality ventilation at a greatly reduced cost to the environment. Using BAS, an HVAC system can link to monitors to alter ventilation rates based on certain parameters. For instance, CO2 sensors can indicate that a room is occupied, triggering heating and air-conditioning, while a lack of CO2 switches the heating or cooling off. Studies have shown that BAS systems based on this model of demand-controlled ventilation can reduce the energy output of HVAC systems by 70%. 

Striking the Right Balance

Creating healthy buildings and prioritizing sustainability are no longer mutually exclusive goals - and businesses cannot afford to ignore either. By utilizing advanced HVAC technologies, IAQ monitoring, and building automation systems, we can create indoor environments that promote wellness and productivity while minimizing energy consumption and environmental impact. 

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