Balancing Indoor Air Quality and Energy Efficiency

 When you think of air quality, what comes to mind?   City smog and the dreaded pollen season? Most of the time, we equate air quality with outdoor air quality. 

The average person, however, spends 90% of their time indoors.  So, while outdoor air quality is important (and has an impact on indoor quality – but that’s a topic for another day) we should also be paying close attention to indoor air quality and the impact it has on our daily lives.    

What is Indoor Air Pollution?

HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) is the largest source of energy consumption in most buildings. In fact, HVAC consumes 43% of the energy used in the United States according to the EPA. With this much energy devoted to one system, property managers focus first on strategies to drive down HVAC usage to lower overall energy costs, usually by further weatherizing a building.  The idea is conserve heating and cooling by letting less warm air out and cold air in during the winter – or vice-a-versa in the summer.

Making your building airtight is an effective energy efficiency strategy, but it also traps indoor air inside your building which can contain undesirable contaminates from paints, cleaning supplies, or other routine maintenance materials. Lack of ventilation and an oversaturation of the byproducts of these types of products can result in “sick building syndrome” – acute health irritations attributed to time spent indoors. Think of it as a mild case of that time you cleaned the bathroom with the doors and windows closed.  The healthiest, most effective buildings focus on balancing energy efficiency with indoor air quality through proper ventilation and air exchanges.

But, good air quality goes beyond just comfort and an enjoyable indoor environment – it has some really interesting impacts on productivity too!

How Indoor Air Quality Impacts Productivity

Green buildings are more than just energy efficient – a key component is also occupant health, comfort and wellbeing.  Tenants actually do report a higher sense of productivity in green building.  While feeling more productive is great, there is some real science and study dedicated to the phenomenon. Harvard School of Public Health recently studied people’s cognitive well being in different buildings to understand the impact of indoor air pollutants and air quality on occupants.

The study compared average buildings and a green buildings with proper ventilation. Researchers monitored air pollutants in each environment and had participants perform identical activities and tasks to test cognitive thinking – isolating indoor environment as the variable.  The results showed that better ventilated buildings improve crisis response and strategic planning thinking by 183%!  .

One big surprise in the study was that productivity wasn’t solely linked to pollutants.  Even in the most non-toxic buildings where non VOC emitting paints were used, ventilation improved office productivity. This impresses the importance of improved ventilation – even in the most green and well run buildings. 

How LEED Fits In

Creating an intentional plan to ventilate your building not only keeps your tenants happier, more comfortable and healthier – it can earn your LEED points, making certification that much easier and successful. The latest building certification system, LEED v4, heavily emphasizes building ventilation and indoor air quality (IAQ), due to the U.S. Green Building Council’s strong interest in health. The LEED rating system incentivises having your IAQ inspected and checked before your building is occupied. USGBC additionally advocates efficient ventilation systems with strategic building flush out plans.

Good ventilation can make your tenants healthier, more effective, and more satisfied. While it’s tempting to reduce ventilation in the name of efficiency, in today’s world buildings can be both energy efficient and well ventilated.  Finding the right balance is part art, part science, requiring proper planning and technology to monitor and adjust your building’s performance.

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