ExclusivesThinkingIndoor air pollution: Why the building owner isn’t always to blame

Architect Raefer Wallis explains how sensor data enables transparency.
Sophie Barton5 years ago11 min

Building owners and managers are under increasing pressure to control indoor air quality. But when it’s called into question, the issue of responsibility isn’t always clear-cut. Architect Raefer Wallis explains to our features editor Sophie Barton how sensor data enables transparency… 

As we scurry down our inner-city streets, we’re often all too aware of the fumes emitted by the thousands of buses and cars clogging up the roads. Finally, we finally step into our offices, breathing in a sigh of relief as we embrace the relative cool and calm within.

But what about the pollution we’re exposed to indoors? We spend approximately 90% of our time inside, and scientists are increasingly finding that the quality of our internal air can be shockingly poor.

An impact on health 

Many of the products that surround us on a daily basis – including some furnishings, paints, glues, wood preservatives, cleaners and building materials – release volatile organic compounds, which can trigger nausea, dizziness, sore eyes and concentration difficulties. Then there’s particulate matter (microscopic particles of dust and dirt) and gases, such as carbon monoxide, to contend with too.

Long term exposure to these pollutants has been linked to cancers and leukaemia, as well as an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and pneumonia. As a result, business heads are increasingly feeling the pressure to ensure their staff are working in an environment with sound air quality, not just to safeguard their wellbeing but also to mitigate the threat of occupier complaints and potentially costly litigation.

Increased awareness 

Today, public awareness around indoor pollution and the ready availability of affordable air quality monitors means building occupants have more power to keep tabs on the air they’re exposed to. Inevitably, this transparency is increasing the pressure on building owners and managers to effectively manage pollution and disclose data. And if a building is shown to be underperforming, they risk facing complaints.

“It’s vital for building owners and corporates to be 100% on top of this – they want to manage and deflect issues before they become issues,” says architect and healthy buildings pioneer Raefer Wallis.

Wallis is the creator and CEO of RESET, a healthy building standards and certification program which focuses on indoor air quality and the wellbeing of those using a space. Sensors are used to provide ongoing real-time data, which shows fluctuations in air quality and enables building owners and facilities managers to alter their behaviour accordingly.

It’s vital for building owners and corporates to be 100% on top of pollution and IAQ data

“If an employee walks into an office with a consumer-grade monitor, the data might not be very accurate but it gives a general indication of air quality,” explains Wallis. “If the results are ‘bad’, the employee effectively ‘wins’ because they are the only person with data. To defend themselves, the employer needs to have better quality data AND enough data to detect and solve the problem before anyone complains. That’s where RESET comes in. It gives the employer the ability to point to a third party.”

Raefer Wallis, Healthy Buildings Pioneer and Architect
Raefer Wallis, Healthy Buildings Pioneer and Architect

The question of culpability 

But when the air we breathe is called into question, where does responsibility lie? The answer, says Wallis, isn’t as simple as you might think.

“People frequently point the finger at the building owner, but they’re often not to blame,” he explains. “An issue may be down to the company that refitted the space, and sometimes it’s the tenants themselves doing things they shouldn’t be. You’d be surprised how often that’s the case. 

“For example, the employees might come in and open all the windows on a polluted day, letting pollution in. Or they pack 10 people into a conference room that was designed for four, which makes the levels of CO2 exceed limits by two to four times, and the building owner is blamed for not delivering enough fresh air.”

Identifying the issue 

It’s important to remember here that indoor air quality is incredibly dynamic, continuously shifting in response to changes in ventilation, heating and occupant activity. But thanks to the continuous monitoring that RESET affords, it’s possible to quickly detect a problem and rapidly discover the trigger.

“We have projects that perform well and suddenly start failing,” says Wallis. “A classic explanation is often that someone has changed the cleaning products. We’ve also had random events, like someone bringing in a magazine collection that contained glues full of chemicals. In design offices, we’ve had situations where people come to work with prototypes or display mock ups filled with glues. Then there are things we don’t think about, such as new mats for schoolchildren that are oozing chemicals.

“If a product is emitting chemicals, the usual trend we see is them accumulating at night, when there’s no outdoor air being pumped into a space. During the day, when the ventilation systems kick in, you see those chemicals start to drop. Then it’s a bit of a war – are the chemicals emanating faster than the system can move them out? In many cases the system removes some chemicals but not all, and every night the concentration gets higher.”

Data transparency 

The beauty of RESET is that it enables clients to layer all this data and get to the root of any problem, neutralising costly debate over culpability.

Wallis explains, “We had at least two cases where the building owners were on the verge of being sued for providing poor air quality, then we found the air being delivered was fine. The problem was due to the tenant’s poor choice of fit-out materials and lack of ventilation around old photocopiers. 

“RESET means the building owners can measure what they can control, such as the quality of the air being delivered to the space. The tenants can then measure, zone by zone, the pollutants they are generating or bringing in. It gives the ability to split data and work out who’s responsible for what, which is a complicated part of the conversation.”

For more information on RESET, click here.

Sophie Barton

Sophie Barton is our Features Editor. She a journalist and editor with 20 years’ experience in the national media, specialising in wellbeing and lifestyle.

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