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Why Indoor Air Quality Matters for Healthy Buildings (And How to Improve It)

With companies returning to offices and the hiring market heating up, addressing the needs and concerns of employees is of paramount importance - and the workforce is more concerned than ever with health, safety, and wellbeing. The principles of a healthy building can help companies optimize their indoor environments, significantly increasing employee satisfaction and retention.

In this article we’ll cover some key concepts in healthy buildings, and explain how to start turning your office space into a healthy building by focusing on monitoring and improving indoor air quality. 

What is a Healthy Building?

A healthy building is a commercial, residential, or public building which is designed in ways that promote the health, safety and wellbeing of its inhabitants. This is achieved by combining principles and insights from the fields of engineering, construction, medicine, and psychology in order to create better indoor environments in the buildings where people spend most of their time.

Architects, city planners, and engineers have been concerned with green or sustainable building for decades. But while green building focuses on the way buildings interact with their environments, in recent years there has been a growing interest in understanding and improving indoor environments.  Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it had grown increasingly clear that the way buildings are designed and maintained has a profound impact on the people inside them. Healthy buildings aim to promote the health, safety, and wellbeing of building inhabitants.

What Makes a Building Healthy?

Healthy buildings can encompass a broad range of design patterns - from fundamental health and safety measures to dedicated yoga and meditation rooms. However, in the oft-cited 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building (PDF), researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health highlight 9 key areas to focus on:

9 Foundations of a Healthy Building

  1. Ventilation
  2. Air quality
  3. Water quality
  4. Thermal health (temperature and humidity)
  5. Dust and pests
  6. Lighting and views
  7. Noise
  8. Moisture
  9. Safety and security

Why healthy buildings matter for businesses 

While much of the recent focus in healthy building has been on public buildings such as schools, the field also has a lot to say about commercial properties. There are many steps that facility managers or HR departments can take to promote healthy building best practices, and we’ll cover some of them later in this article. 

But while employee wellbeing is doubtless a lofty goal, it’s also an endeavor that requires time and money - which can be difficult for companies to allocate. However, when you consider the true cost of not implementing healthy building principles, the justification for such investment quickly becomes clear:

3 Ways to Make the Business Case for Healthy Buildings  

    1. Costs of absenteeism and presenteeism: Employees getting ill at the office, and subsequently being forced to lose work, is bad for everyone - employees, employers and the broader economy. According to a survey of 94000 workers across 14 industries in the US, the annual cost of lost productivity due to absenteeism reached a whopping $84 billion.
    2. Employee morale and retention: In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, employees have become more health-conscious; many may still be apprehensive about a return to the office. A willingness to invest in promoting their health and wellbeing will go a long way towards ensuring that employees stay motivated and value your company as an employer, rather than pursue other opportunities. These policies can also help attract new talent as the job market heats up and competition over skilled workers gets more intense.
    3. Improved return on real-estate investment: Improving health conditions in your building and gaining relevant certifications (such as WELL) can be a powerful tool to increase tenant satisfaction. As an employer or a building owner, this will help you get the most value out of your investment in commercial real-estate and reduce churn.

Not Sure Where to Start? Go With Indoor Air Quality

As we’ve covered above, there are many different ways you can embark on the journey to healthy buildings - from ventilation to water quality to noise. But from our experience, the best place to start would be with indoor air quality (IAQ) - and here’s why:

Indoor air quality has a larger impact on employee satisfaction than other factors.

Improving IAQ can provide better ‘bang for your buck’ compared to other healthy building optimizations. A study conducted in the Netherlands, in which 70% of a company’s workforce was relocated to a different building with better perceived environmental conditions, found that improvement in air quality had the largest effect on reducing employee dissatisfaction (you can read the full study here). 

Indoor air quality can help get employees back in the office.

In a recent survey, 82% of millennial workers reported that they would feel safer returning to the office if they would receive timely and transparent IAQ data. Many are understandably still apprehensive of spending prolonged time in enclosed office buildings in the wake of the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic; taking steps to reduce airborne transmission of viruses will make the return to offices easier for these employees.

The cost savings are substantial.

We’ve mentioned the costs of absenteeism above, and since many viruses and pathogens are airborne, improvement in air quality plays a significant factor in this. But these are not the only costs involved with poor IAQ: exposure to indoor pollutants can have a direct impact on cognitive functions and decision-making capabilities, negatively impacting productivity. A 2015 study (summarized here) by Harvard assistant professor Joseph Allen estimated that the productivity benefits of improving air quality through ventilation are around $6,500 per person per year. 

Key Considerations for Indoor Air Quality

To understand how you can improve IAQ, you should start by considering the factors that can affect it. Some of the main causes for poor IAQ that you should be measuring include:

  1. Particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10): solid particles and liquid droplets - including larger ones such as dust and smoke, as well as microscopic ones that can’t be detected by the naked eye. These could be very detrimental to the health of building occupants. 
  2. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs): gases such as ethylene glycol and formaldehyde, which are often found in an office environment can contribute to both short-term and long-term conditions, including sick building syndrome. VOCs could also cause unpleasant odors which hurt productivity and employee perceptions of their workplace.
  3. Carbon dioxide: Exposure to elevated levels of CO2 can induce a broad range of negative health symptoms - including fatigue, drowsiness, and headaches. They can also induce a general feeling of ‘stuffiness’ or the air being heavy, and hurt productivity.
  4. Thermal comfort: Temperature and relative humidity have been shown to have a large impact on the subjective satisfaction of building occupants with their environment, and corresponds to their overall level of comfort.

Choosing Effective Strategies to Improve Indoor Air Quality

There are many ways to improve IAQ in an office building, and some might be more applicable than others in your particular space - opening windows sounds like a no-brainer, but for an office located on the 57th floor it isn’t always safe and simple to do so. While the scope of this article will not suffice to cover the full range of possibilities, we can offer a few general guidelines to help you understand how to approach the problem:

Invest in Real-Time Air Quality Monitoring 

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.

- Peter Drucker

Peter Drucker's famous quote stands true for IAQ. The first step towards any kind of solution is understanding the scope of the problem. For this purpose, you should look into air quality monitoring technology that can give you a good reading on different factors that affect IAQ, including PM2.5 & PM10, TVOC, CO2, temperature, and relative humidity. Monitoring will help you understand both the scale of the problem and your progress towards solving it over time.

Evaluate and Improve Your HVAC Performance

Fresh air is key to improving indoor air quality. In some offices it’s possible to increase natural ventilation through vents and windows, while others need to rely on mechanical means. Modern HVAC units can help by bringing fresh air into the building as well as moderating temperature to prevent moisture from accumulating. It is important to conduct periodic HVAC audits to ensure systems are working properly and to maximize energy efficiency. Degradation in air quality can hint at issues with HVAC systems, which further highlights the need to continuously monitor IAQ. . 

Promote Collaboration Between Facility Managers and Business Stakeholders

A healthy building requires building owners, site managers, HR departments, and facility managers to work together to ensure that best practices are maintained over time, that hygiene standards are maintained and that IAQ is being considered when dealing with issues such as pest control. Establishing procedures, sharing air quality data, and maintaining regular communication channels can all help identify and address problems when they’re still small enough to handle.

Install Better Filtration and UV Lighting to Combat Viruses

As we’ve covered in a previous guide, high-efficiency air filters (MERV 13 / HEPA) can help remove some virus particles from the air circulating in the building. Investing in a UV light purifier can also help eliminate viruses through germicidal irradiation, which is relevant for COVID-19 as well as other microbes, including molds and bacteria.

Closing: Healthy Buildings Are a Journey, but Every Journey Starts With One Small Step

Healthy building is a rapidly-growing body of knowledge, and staying informed on the latest developments is crucial for today’s businesses. Facility managers, HR departments, and senior stakeholders need to align in order to ensure that employees’ wellbeing is prioritized and avoid operational disruptions.

Within the wider healthy building framework, the importance of indoor air quality cannot be overstated - both as a key contributor to preventing illness and absenteeism, and as a factor that deeply impacts employee satisfaction. 

Ready to take the first step towards better indoor air quality in your facilities?

You’re in luck - we’re offering a free, no-strings-attached consultation with our air quality experts. Click below to schedule a quick chat to understand how you can implement better air quality monitoring and the expected benefits you can expect to see:

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Kaiterra is a global company on a mission to end air pollution. We make air monitors that empower people to make small changes in their everyday lives and help with researchers, NGOs, and governments around the world to end air pollution at the source.