Indoor air quality is the latest wellness trend to gain momentum in the commercial building industry, prompting the development of smart HVAC systems designed to maintain acceptable temperature, humidity and ventilation levels for building occupant health. Adelle King explains.
Since 2014 and the introduction of the WELL Building Standard, the wellness movement in the commercial building sector has taken off, with the industry’s focus increasingly shifting from ‘green’ buildings to the health of the people inside the buildings.
Indoor air quality plays a big role in this and is something integrators increasingly need to be aware of as a growing number of companies look to incorporate health and wellness into workplace design.
While this idea of a total approach to healthy living and working environments is only now becoming widespread, it first gained attention in 1984 when the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a report warning that up to 30% of new and re-modelled buildings may be the subject of excessive complaints related to indoor air quality.
The report sparked interest in the science of building biology, which originated in Germany and provides a holistic examination of the health hazards present in the built environment. Building biologists are trained to assess, identify and quantify health hazards and irritants in indoor environments, including air, water, allergens, biological contaminants and products being used.
Nicole Bijlsma established the Australian College of Environmental Studies to educate Australians about building biology and says the sector is gaining prominence now thanks to an increasing amount of literature being developed on the subject.
“A shift towards building biology is occurring because there is much more information about how things like mould and allergens affect the human body, not just in terms of asthma and allergies but also on conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome. This growing awareness in scientific literature is starting to spread through to clinicians and building managers.”
The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): A resource for assessing exposure to environmental pollutions, which was funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US, found people spend approximately 90% of their lives in indoor environments. Poor building design, maintenance and/or the operation of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems can therefore significantly impact the health and wellbeing of building occupants.
In fact, a study published in the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHEAE) Journal titled IEQ and the Impact on Building Occupants, found 23% of workers in the US experienced acute symptoms, such as eye and nose irritation or headaches, associated with occupancy in a specific building.
Nicole says these sorts of complaints are becoming more common because new buildings have been built to be energy-efficient, which means the amount of fresh air coming inside is limited.
“The oil embargos in the 1970s resulted in the introduction of policies at both the state and federal level that aimed to improve the energy-efficiency of buildings. These policies improved insulation but they led to buildings being constructed with tight thermal envelopes that have no passive ventilation,” says Nicole.
“While this is good for energy efficiency, it means there is no way for water vapour to move through the building envelope and therefore the buildings are completely dependent on HVAC systems. Research by the WHO found this causes a build-up of indoor pollutants that make occupants sick.”
The WHO referred to this as ‘sick building syndrome’, where building occupants experience acute health and comfort problems that appear to be linked to time spent in a building. Unhealthy indoor air quality is the biggest cause of sick building syndrome and can also result in fatigue, concentration difficulties and lack of productivity.
“Moisture is the main problem in regards to indoor air quality because as soon as there is moisture or high humidity levels at 60% or more in a building, mould and allergens such as dust mites proliferate,” says Nicole.
“The simple way to address this is through air conditioning units because they act as de-humidifiers and pull moisture out of the air.”
This is where integrators come in, providing clients with technologically advanced HVAC systems that go beyond simply cooling and heating rooms to monitoring and improving indoor air quality.
“When people think of indoor air quality, they often focus on the room temperature but there are three other important factors – humidity, carbon dioxide and particulates in the air,” says Airtopia managing director Dominic Cannalonga.
Airtopia has developed an air conditioning integration model that can help improve these three factors of indoor air quality. It also interfaces with building management or home automation systems, including C-Bus, Control4 and Savant.
“The Airtopia controller allows us to integrate split-system air conditioners with smart devices and home or building control systems, with a range of interface options that allow for integration into almost any system. This means integrators don’t need to worry about what brand or model of air conditioning unit is being installed,” says Dominic.
“What we’ve done is taken the complexity out of integrating the enhanced control of air conditioning and seamlessly allowed it to work with the integrator’s home automation systems.”
A separate external remote temperature sensor is available and Airtopia is also developing systems that will measure humidity and carbon monoxide, which will be released later in the year.
“The Airtopia system already helps to improve indoor air quality by de-humidifying the air, maintaining air flow to reduce the risk of contaminants building up, such as carbon monoxide, and filtering out particulates in the air. Now, we’re looking into developing systems that will also measure the quality of indoor air,” says Dominic.
Preventative maintenance is also a focus and Airtopia offers live monitoring of how the air conditioning units are running to prevent catastrophic failure.
“Airtopia allows users to remotely control their heating and cooling, and understand the indoor air quality. It also ensures that failure is prevented by notifying the right people when maintenance is required. We’ve found that this is becoming a really important part of maintaining healthy indoor air quality and improving the health of occupants,” says Dominic.
“We’ve made this simple for users. It’s a ‘set and forget’ system where users can schedule their air conditioning and set a temperature that maximises energy efficiency while maintaining comfort.”
Finding this balance between a temperature that’s comfortable and one that saves energy is particularly difficult for offices and other commercial buildings. In these premises thermal comfort has to take into account everyone from people who can’t handle the cold to those who always feel overheated.
A survey commissioned by the International Interior Design Association and the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association found that office temperature was the number one complaint from workers in the US. Nearly half of the survey respondents said they were unsatisfied with that aspect of their work and 36% said they were unhappy with the temperature of their work space.
To help solve this problem, Air Innovations has developed a personalised desk console management system that enables individual workers to control their own space.
While personal space heaters and fans have been around for years as personalised climate control options, there hasn’t been a unit that combines both heating and cooling. This is because traditional cooling systems create a lot of hot air and to eliminate this involves large amounts of ductwork.
Now, under a grant from the US Department of Energy, New York-based Air Innovations – in partnership with Syracuse and Cornell Universities, Carrier Corp and Bush Technical – has developed a system that doesn’t generate heat exhaust.
The system is based on blocks of wax-like ‘phase change’ material that can be stored at each desk. The blocks are the size of an old-style computer tower and melt slowly over the course of the day, generating cool air that employees can direct as needed over their workspace. The blocks are then re-frozen at night for use the next day.
Known as micro environments, the desk console management system combines temperature and lighting control into a single unit that provides heating or cooling airflow via adjustable louvers. Available in both a self-contained, one-piece design and a design with ducted supply, micro environments provide benefits to workers, employers and the environment.
“It’s now well documented that temperature and indoor air quality have a huge impact on productivity and the health of building occupants,” says Dominic.
“As a result, more companies are looking for HVAC systems that improve indoor air quality so its important integrators understand what this is and how HVAC systems can improve people’s well-being.”