Air Quality

Ensuring indoor air quality in existing buildings

Balancing tenant satisfaction, building operations and recent sustainability trends
Tuesday, June 3, 2014
By Michael Glassco

Since the indoor environment of buildings began being mechanically controlled, it has been challenging to accommodate both the needs of the building and the comfort of its occupants through proper indoor air quality.

Those who manage and maintain commercial real estate across Canada have a responsibility to provide a healthy and comfortable environment for the tenants, workers and visitors.

Outdoor air ventilation requirements for buildings over the past 40 years have fluctuated due to different trends associated with both energy and comfort. In the early 70s, ventilation requirements were very high, about 25 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of outdoor air per person. In the late 70s, ventilation rates were cut back drastically because of energy concerns (down to 5 cfm per person).

Then, in the late 80s, ventilation rates increased because indoor air quality issues arose when the ventilation was cut back (up to 20 cfm per person). But now, sustainability initiatives are again leading the way to outdoor air ventilation reductions to conserve energy in commercial buildings.

So are managers not perhaps going down the same path taken during the late 70s and early 80s? Not likely to that extent, but they do need to learn from that experience and not get too drastic in the changes. Otherwise, an era of buildings with poor indoor quality will be created.

Regardless of the age of existing buildings, commercial property and facility management groups have taken it upon themselves to implement an annual or semi-annual proactive indoor air quality (IAQ) testing program. Usually done by an independent third party, this proactive effort helps document how the building performs with respect to the IAQ. Based on experience in more than 350 buildings across Canada, more than 90 per cent of buildings perform well and provide exceptional IAQ.

The proactive IAQ testing program is a useful tool that helps maintain tenant satisfaction while also re-assuring the building operation team that their buildings are performing well. Additionally, some high-profile tenants are starting to have the need for proactive IAQ testing written right into their leases.

Employers, workers, tenants and building operators should also understand that studies have been done that actually quantify the effects of good IAQ on worker performance. Workers that are satisfied with their IAQ are 4–10 per cent more productive at their jobs.

In some buildings, the proactive IAQ testing program does identify deficiencies but these can be addressed and corrected prior to escalating matters into a larger concern or can help in future capital planning, possibly through a ventilation system upgrade.

It does appear as though new commercial office buildings across Canada are being built with sustainability efforts in mind and most are seeking certification under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program. But there are still thousands of existing commercial real estate buildings across Canada.

The existing building stock is feeling some pressure because corporate policies and tenants are demanding that their office spaces be certified under the LEED program, too. LEED for Existing Buildings: Operations and Maintenance (LEED-EBOM) has dramatically increased in popularity over the past few years.

Those familiar with LEED understand that there are a variety of prerequisites that they must achieve and then numerous credits available from which they can choose to implement. For the environmental quality (EQ) portion of the LEED requirements, there are three prerequisites: minimum IAQ performance, environmental tobacco smoke control and green cleaning policy.

One of the EQ credits buildings can obtain is EQ credit 1.1 and it requires a thorough IAQ audit, compliant with the US-EPA’s Indoor Air Quality Building Education and Assessment Model (I-BEAM), to be completed. The audit is quite a comprehensive assessment and does not involve much testing of the indoor air quality. The purpose of the audit is to determine the IAQ status of the subject building and associated grounds by thoroughly assessing the basic conditions of the occupied spaces, mechanical systems and exterior.

The information obtained from the I-BEAM audits has been quite interesting because a building that has been measured to have good IAQ still has a long list of items to address after the audit. Most of these action items are low or no-cost options. However, the lesson learned was that there is always room for improvement.

As buildings become more energy efficient, focus still needs to be given to the indoor environment so that past mistakes are not repeated.

Michael Glassco is president of Sterling IAQ Consultants Ltd. in Vancouver.

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