This winter, many of us will be breathing stale indoor air with unhealthy levels of pollutants. The air we breathe can have a profound effect on our health, mood, and productivity. Ventilation, or bringing fresh outside air indoors, is a leading strategy for improving indoor air quality (IAQ). However, most properties do not know how much outside air they are supplying to their tenants.

“We have been ignoring the 90%. We spend 90% of our time indoors and 90% of the cost of a building are the occupants, yet indoor environmental quality and its impact on health and productivity are often an afterthought”- Joseph Allen, Harvard.

A large body of evidence

Numerous studies show that the amount of ventilation is critical to health and productivity. A Harvard Business Review study estimated that doubling ventilation rates increases productivity by $6,500 per person annually. An EPA study showed that 20-30% fewer occupants reported health issues (i.e., headache, fatigue, cough, etc.) when ventilation rates were increased above code minimum levels. Breea has visited many properties with ventilation rates well below code minimums.

A balancing act
During the energy crisis in the 1970s, efforts to improve energy efficiency led to tighter buildings with less ventilation. This caused concentrations of indoor pollutants to rise and the advent of “sick buildings.” While ventilation standards have since improved and low-VOC products are becoming the norm, many buildings still have poor IAQ.

Energy efficiency and IAQ do not have to be mutually exclusive. Strategic control of HVAC systems, such as fully leveraging economizers and morning air purges when outdoor air temperatures are moderate, can significantly improve IAQ while still conserving energy.

LEEDing the way in IAQ performance
Launched in 2015, LEED Performance Score (formerly known as LEED Dynamic Plaque) is a certification pathway developed by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) that focuses on readily available performance data. Performance Score is the only green building rating system that requires annual testing of the two leading indicators of IAQ; Total volatile organic compounds (TVOCs) and carbon dioxide (CO2).

Unlike many LEED requirements, the IAQ testing is a blessing and not a curse. When performing LEED IAQ testing for our clients, Breea has identified numerous opportunities to improve IAQ and tenant comfort, while reducing energy costs. Learn more about LEED Performance Score.

Common causes of poor IAQ
While many factors can cause poor IAQ, we typically encounter the following:

Changes in occupancy. Ventilation systems that are not adjusted to account for changes in occupancy. Each time occupancy changes, adjust ventilation rates to align with occupant density. Meet or exceed ventilation rates recommended by ASHRAE Standard 62.1.

Overreliance on technology. Many buildings have Demand-Controlled Ventilation (DCV) systems that deliver outside air according to CO2 concentrations. However, if the CO2 setpoints are too high or the sensors are not calibrated properly, floors or whole buildings may not receive any outside air. Experiment with adjusting the CO2 setpoints and measuring the associated ventilation rates, targeting those in the ASHRAE Standard 62.1. Many technical resources recommend CO2 setpoints no higher than 800 ppm.

Failed dampers. Dampers that have failed closed or are not operating properly. Repair, replace, and/or adjust the failed dampers and ensure ventilation rates are well aligned with occupant density.

Stay ahead of tenant IAQ complaints
IAQ issues typically arise from tenant complaints, not through proactive investigations. Poor IAQ can impact occupant health, productivity, and absenteeism. For a large company, even a small decline in employee performance can have a measurable impact on the bottom line. And as we know, tenant complaints are time consuming and can result in costly IAQ studies.

Many tenants are beginning to demand robust IAQ programs to keep their employees healthy and productive. EPA’s I-BEAM program (i.e., IAQ Building Education & Assessment Model) is a leading resource for the development of IAQ programs.

Market your IAQ program
Surveys by the International Facility Management Association (IFMA) and the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) place HVAC, IAQ, and thermal comfort among the top 5 leading complaints that impact office moves and changes. Consider highlighting your IAQ program to improve tenant retention and when marketing buildings to prospective tenants.