Can A New Approach To Building Design Improve Indoor Air Quality?

Indoor air quality has always been a bit of a niche subject, even in environmental circles, but over the last few years, a growing number of people have come to realise how vital it is to our wellbeing. 

Devices to monitor and clean the air in your home and workplace are now readily available in major stores, and while those devices are incredibly important in their own right, what about the way buildings are designed?

Should indoor air quality be factored in from the start, or can it be an afterthought and dealt with later?

Indoor air quality at home

Kevin Smith, general manager of life and device solutions division and visual solutions at Panasonic Canada said the focus on homebuilding over the last 20 years has been around energy efficiency and to “seal buildings up as tightly as possible”.

But Smith said the “biggest issue in design, right now” is improving indoor air quality through improved ventilation systems, using products that produce fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and tackling the issue of gas stoves in kitchens, which can also pollute the air we breathe.

He added there needs to be a “balanced approach” to ventilation systems to ensure that they do not just evacuate stale air, but also bring fresh air back into a house at the same time. 

But there can be no doubt that people are now more aware of the issues relating to indoor air quality. A recent study by Panasonic found after learning more about the subject, the number of homeowners who viewed their own homes as somewhat or very unhealthy more than tripled, from 12% to 39%.

“Before the pandemic we really had to force the conversation around indoor air quality, but since then, it’s been a natural conversation to have with the building community,” added Smith.

“Our survey really showed how unaware both homeowners and builders are about indoor air quality,” he added. “But once you start the conversation, it is easy to get them to connect with the issue, because they understand that their home is their nest. This is where their children are growing up.”

The workplace

Brian Turner, the chief executive officer of Buildings IOT, said the way workplaces are designed “obviously has a big impact” on ventilation and air quality.

Mr Turner said if you do not have enough fresh air coming into an office “you starve that space of effective ventilation” and he added “you can unknowingly reduce” the indoor air quality in certain parts of an office just by putting the wrong kind of furniture in, or even temporary walls in place.

In a commercial office, Turner said the air needs to be replaced between six and eight times an hour at the very minimum.

“There has certainly been a lot of talk about how office spaces are going to be redesigned going forward,” he added. “You’re going to see a lot less people density, and that’s not for fear of Covid coming back, but really for fear of the next pandemic or epidemic.”

Turner said hardware and sensors already exist to ensure a building has a good flow of healthy air.

 “You think about the smartest buildings in the world, and they have the best ventilation,” said Mr Turner. “They have the sensors where they need them. They have the data. You can tell that when you enter those buildings. We often joke that the most modern casinos in Las Vegas are always the places that you feel most awake when you enter them, because they have the best ventilation systems.”

Earlier this week, the White House announced a new “buy clean” task force to promote use of building materials with lower lifecycle emissions, which could also have an impact on future building designs in the United States. 

“We can go a step further in that effort by ensuring that the everyday technology and services within buildings also work to optimize energy throughout the building’s lifespan,” added Turner. 

Retail spaces

It’s not just workplaces and homes that will need to change the way they are designed to ensure a flow of fresh air. Tim Burke, vice president of energy and operations at IMS Evolve, said we could see “a complete shift” in how supermarkets and other retailers plan their stores. 

Burke said the emphasis will be on creating a “safer space for the people that still want to shop”.

“The shift around fresh air is creating the understanding that we’re going to need more sensory data to be able to plan a store and control a store from the ground up,” he added. “It’s always mattered, but it seems to matter more now to get air changes down at the customer level, not just rotating hot air from the top of the building.”

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