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Breathe easy

New evidence suggests indoor air quality directly contributes to staff productivity. We look at the ways a ventilation system can both enhance occupant comfort and contribute to a green infrastructure within buildings

The recent shift in attitudes towards employee wellbeing has prompted FMs to consider the role that the physical environment has in creating a healthy and happy place to work. “Organisations are starting to acknowledge that good employee wellbeing is crucial in achieving both the creativity and innovation needed for success,” says Adrian Powell, Director at Active FM. “New scientific research which has come to light in the past decade has made business leaders aware of the effects bad health can have on their bottom line.”

Health problems such as heart and lung disease, diabetes and obesity are all on the rise, along with the associated increased rates of absenteeism. “Staff costs typically contribute to 90 per cent of the overall financial costs linked with a building-based business,” says Powell. With this knowledge, companies are turning their attention to improving their buildings to achieve both a financial and competitive advantage. Since its conception in 1990, BREEAM has aimed to improve occupants’ health and wellbeing in the built environment.

Powell points out that the average person spends over 90 per cent of their lives inside buildings. “One of the main problems faced by FMs today is improving air quality to an acceptable standard inside a building. In April, Britain was given a ‘final warning’ from the European Commission after it failed to comply with EU air pollution limits. A 2017 YouGov poll showed that more than half of the British public believe air pollution levels across the UK are damaging to their health. According to Leesman, 66.5 per cent of UK employees believe that air quality is important, while only 35 per cent are actually satisfied with the current quality in their workplace.”

He explains that at present there is no single test that FMs can undertake to find out whether a building has an air quality issue. However, measurable variables such as carbon dioxide emissions, temperature, humidity and airflow can help assess whether there is a problem. An FM can inspect ventilation, heating and airconditioning systems to see if there is anything unusual. They can also walk through the building to check for water damage, leaks, dirt and smells.

“Failing this,” advises Powell, “you can always talk directly with the building’s occupants, those who are regularly inside the building. While they may not be able to objectively notice whether air quality is to a legal standard, they may complain about unpleasant odours, dust or mould issues, hot temperatures and even headaches when inside the building. Exposure to these air issues can have a detrimental effect on employee health, potentially causing health problems such as cardiovascular illnesses.”

Assessing and checking for air problems within a building is, of course, important, but FMs should also take preventative steps to improve the health of staff. Filters on heating and cooling systems should be cleaned and maintained to help stop pollutants from being spread. “A cost-effective way of cleaning your air can be found in the use of air purifiers and plants – such as the spider plant, which is good at removing toxic substances. Even NASA uses them.” By improving air quality and adhering to government health and safety regulations as well as suggestions from BREEAM, he concludes, FMs can be confident that their building is healthy, clean and safe.

FMs should take note of a new legal standard for minimum energy efficiency (MEES) in rented commercial buildings. Robert Dennis, Product Marketing Executive at Airflow Developments, explains that from April 2018 landlords will have to ensure their buildings have an energy efficiency rating above the new minimum standard of E. “It’s clear that the quality of energy conservation in UK builds is becoming increasingly important,” he says. “However, energy efficiency is often achieved at the expense of the building’s air quality, which can be detrimental to office workers’ health and productivity.”

In an effort to improve energy efficiency by constructing hermetically sealed buildings, he notes, concentration of some pollution indicators can be two to five times higher indoors than outdoors. “With the average person spending up to 99,000 hours at work in their lifetime, it’s important to ensure healthy and clean indoor air quality through adequate ventilation.

“It’s great to see the introduction of standards such as the WELL Building standard, which seeks to improve human health and wellness through the design and construction of a build. WELL works with key rating systems such as BREEAM to ensure environmental sustainability and, requires third party onsite testing to certify that projects have achieved key components of the standard.”

Dennis suggests that an ideal solution to ventilate a commercial building would be through the use of a mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) system. These units essentially take the stale air from inside a building and extract energy from it, via a heat exchanger, to recover heat that would normally be lost as part of the ventilation process. This energy is used to pre-warm clean fresh air that is continually being brought in from outside, which is then filtered and circulated around the building.

“When looking for an effective MVHR unit, it’s also important to consider a model that uses high performance polypropylene exchangers to transfer recovered heat from warm to cold air,” he says. “These systems can achieve up to 95 per cent thermal efficiency, ensuring less energy is required to heat incoming air, which can reduce overall costs by up to 40 per cent.”

MVHR units that incorporate a 100 per cent effective summer bypass facility can also prevent further costs occurring when trying to cool a building as well as providing further comfort to building occupants by maintaining an optimum temperature throughout. “Summer bypass facilities prevent the outdoor air entering the heat exchanger when a pre-defined temperature is reached. Instead, the supply air bypasses the heat exchanger and is filtered before entering the building, minimising overheating during summer months and reducing excess energy usage.”

While it’s important to ensure the energy efficiency of a building, he concludes, it’s vital to provide and maintain an effective ventilation solution. “When specifying a system it is important to consider the relevant building requirements it needs to meet, easily achieved through the WELL standard, as well as its energy efficiency and any additional features that can provide improved air quality or thermal efficiency – not just to improve the comfort of a building occupant, but most importantly their health.”

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