Designing for better indoor air quality

+ Indoor air quality needs to be a higher priority during the design process of living and working spaces because it is vital to occupant health and wellbeing.

People around the world spend increasing amounts of time in air-tight environments, buildings where a focus on energy efficiency often emphasises the value of centrally controlled conditions over indoor air quality. I think we need to make indoor air quality a higher priority during the design process if we’re to successfully support occupants’ health and wellbeing. 

Studies by the American Environmental Protection Agency have found that indoor air pollution can potentially be significantly worse than outdoors. Given that people spend up to 90% of their time indoors, the quality and effects of indoor air needs more attention. Indeed, public health awareness of indoor air quality lags well behind existing concerns about city smog and vehicles’ production of carbon monoxide and other pollutants.

Even with well-designed ventilation systems, poor understanding by occupants of how they work can often lead to them being ineffective. In addition, a lack of understanding of the sources of harmful contaminants prevents occupants from avoiding high emission products.

Poor indoor air quality can severely impact an occupant’s health and wellbeing, causing drowsiness, headaches, skin irritation through to chronic respiratory problems and cancer. It can also negatively affect the productivity and commercial and operational performance of a building’s occupants. 

Limiting the sources of contaminants within a property is key. A large proportion of harmful emissions encountered within buildings can be attributed to materials – both construction materials as well as occupant activities, e.g. cleaning products, perfumes, etc. By substituting lower emission products these sources can be reduced or removed, leading to significant improvements in the quality of indoor air. And these improvements can often be achieved without additional cost.

The issue also takes different forms depending on where in the world people live and work. Over three billion people still cook and heat their homes using open fires and leaky stoves. Improvements to the type of fuels used and level of ventilation are key. A recent study in Delhi, India, found that 34% of people who spend a lot of time in offices and homes may suffer from respiratory diseases, and over 82% of offices in the capital have unhealthy air quality.

Legislation relating to indoor air quality varies globally. For example, in the UK, there is no legislation relating to emissions from products inside buildings such as flooring products and adhesives which will often emit volatile organic compounds. Regulation could be increased or tightened, but it will still take an increased public awareness about indoor air quality issues before this will gain traction. We can’t afford to wait and so I advocate for owners and occupiers to take their own action, for example, by selecting low emitting construction and furnishing materials. 

Recognised guidance on how to improve indoor air quality does exist, for example the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Air Quality Guide. And air quality inside buildings is also increasingly part of wider building standards like LEED, BREEAM, and WELL. 

But for the design and architecture community it’s vital that there is increased attention paid to this aspect of design if we are to improve the level of health and wellbeing created within buildings.

Have you encountered any great examples of indoor air quality being prioritised in building design? Do share them in the comments section below. This is a developing space and I am keen to learn from the experience of others.