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How important is air quality for commercial office design?

How important is air quality for commercial office design?

Francesca Brady, CEO and Co-Founder of AirRated, Fourfront Group’s Head of Sustainability, Duncan Morris, and Guenaelle Watson, Managing Director of 360 Workplace, brought together a selection of thought leaders to discuss the ins and outs of air quality and commercial design. Fittingly held at our Gold AirScore-rated Windsor office and as part of the company’s B Corp accreditation, training and continuous improvement programme, experts debated the importance of air quality for commercial office design and what the industry needs to be doing to ensure developments keep moving forward in this area. 

Introductions 

Duncan Morris is the Head of Sustainability at Area: “There are three years until our next B Corp recertification assessment and we don't want to stand still and not take the opportunity to improve.” That’s why Area went through the process of being accredited with a Gold AirScore from AirRated, as a continuous commitment to the wellbeing of our people. Established in 2018 and following a comprehensive research and development, the AirScore has now become the global benchmark in indoor air quality. 

Why? Because this is a standard that’s grounded in science.

Our Co-Chair for the discussion was Francesca Brady, CEO and Co-Founder of AirRated: “I am from an academic background of air quality and the science behind it. In that sense, I'm not from the commercial property world, let alone office fit-out. However, fit-out has a massive impact on the resultant air quality for people in these spaces.”

“Essentially, that’s why there’s such strength in a science-led certification company partnering up with organisations in design and construction. The AirScore has real-life applications such as helping to understand more about material selection, where to put partitions, etc. And it isn’t an intimidating process to become certified. Instead, it's just a way to give one high-level kitemark of the health of the indoor environment.” 

 

How do we know if the air inside our offices is of good quality? 

As we can’t see the air, we don't know whether it’s healthy or not. We’ve also got no idea whether it’s helping our health, productivity, well-being or comfort. That’s where an AirScore can make a huge difference. “It’s a way of making the invisible, visible,” says Brady. 

But what about other healthy-building certifications?

Fitwel and the WELL Standard look at buildings holistically. “Which is absolutely the right approach to take,” says Brady.

However, organisations that want to pursue these sorts of certifications will have to invest quite heavily in them.

“They're complex as certifications go. So we wanted to make something that was accessible to a much wider audience,” says Brady. But that’s not the only benefit she says: “It still contributes to your ESG and CSR initiatives, but it's not going to break the bank to do it - because it shouldn't.”

That’s because good air quality is a fundamental right, and more and more people are realising it. 

Air quality in the news

“There's greater knowledge and awareness about air quality as a general subject matter now,” says Brady. Obviously, there are continuous concerns about the climate crisis and external air quality but, following COVID-19, the mainstream media started asking: How clean is the air in your office? And at a time when staff were wondering how long it would be until their employers asked them to return to the office, they have a right to know. 

Brady shared the story of Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah CBE, a British grassroots campaigner who has been raising awareness after her daughter passed away from an asthma attack in Lewisham due to the air pollution around the South Circular.

“She's been campaigning for the last decade and is spearheading The Clean Air human rights bill, otherwise known as ‘Ella’s Law’, that's going through Parliament at the moment.” At this time, there have already been a couple of changes to legislation around building regulations, e.g. introducing a mandatory requirement for monitoring CO2 levels in new builds and heavy refurbishments. “But (the Clean Air Act) will be a really significant moment if it passes - it looks at both internal air quality and external air quality,” says Brady. You can check the progress of the bill online and you can also support it here. 

The good thing is, some rudimentary air quality data is out there. You just need to know where to find it. 

Brady also talked about the company BreezoMeter, which was recently acquired by Google. “If you type in any postcode on the website - whether that's for your home, office or kid’s school - you can get the outdoor air quality data for that area,” she says.

It shows things like the dominant pollutant; which could be things like nitrogen dioxide from traffic emissions, ozone or fine dust. And this is an easy way to get your hands on free, publicly accessible information about outdoor air quality. 

AirRated looks at the indoors. And takes things a step further by adding crucial context and actionable insight to the numbers. 

The five parameters of AirScore 

The AirScore is based on five fundamental parameters, explains Brady. These are: humidity, carbon dioxide, PM2.5, temperature and TVOCs

There are sensors out there that can monitor these parameters. “But if you don't understand the context behind the data, does it really mean anything?” That's where an AirScore can help fill in the gaps.

“We wanted to deliver a certification that immediately gives you a snapshot of what’s going on,” she says. And that becomes particularly important with “invisible” pollutants like PM2.5 and grey areas such as temperature.

Air quality and comfort 

Everyone knows that temperature is one of the most commonly cited complaints in an office. “...but this one's really difficult to measure,” says Brady. “We really just look at how well-regulated temperature in offices is. We don't want to see really warm areas and then really cold areas or big fluctuations throughout the day” she adds. 

AirRated looks for consistency in temperature. Fluctuations in temperature throughout the day can put stress on the body. “What we also bring into the survey is the external temperature. Because if it's 0 °C outside and your setpoint is 24 °C, there’s going to be a stress on the body moving between the two environments and it's not very sustainable,” she says. 

But how do you balance air comfort with sustainability in the workplace?

Brady recommends bringing the setpoint down to 20-21oC in colder months and allowing the space to reach 24-25oC in the warmer months. This shouldn’t compromise comfort, well-being or productivity and will be more sustainable. It will also reduce stress on the body by moving between indoor and outdoor environments.

But it’s not just the air temperature that affects the office environment; Brady also talked about the effect that humidity and the content of air moisture can have on us. 

“If we have really dry indoor environments - below 30% relative humidity - it's not great for our bodies. It dries out our mucous membranes, which is our body's natural defence against viruses like covid, colds and the flu,” she says. Unfortunately, the drier the environment, the easier it is to contract these. 

“The ‘Goldilocks zone’ for humidity is between 40% and 60%,” says Brady. However, she also notes that between 30% and 70% relative humidity is commonly referred to as ‘good practice’. Offices tend to suffer from dry indoor air across winter months, whereas our homes are more likely to be too humid as a result of moisture-generating activities such as cooking, cleaning, drying clothes etc.

 

What’s the ideal level for indoor CO2?

CO2 is another big determinant in the comfort of the space as high levels can lead to a negative impact on your cognitive performance and feeling “stuffy” within your environment.

“A lot of people think about CO2 as a greenhouse gas,” says Brady. Combustion releases CO2 into the atmosphere and contributes to the ‘greenhouse effect’; CO2 levels outside are around 420ppm. CO2 is also present in indoor settings, but the context is different. “We breathe out CO2, and if you're exposed to levels of around 1000-1100 ppm (parts per million), the impact it has on your cognitive performance is like having two pints of beer.” 

Brady explains that at 1000 ppm, you might feel like the air is a “bit stuffy”; you may even get a headache or start to feel sleepy. 

Brady also points out that “...we're talking about improving productivity and comfort when it comes to levels of CO2 - it’s less to do with safety at the levels seen in commercial office environments.”

If there are high levels of traffic around the office space, it’s likely you'll have increased levels of CO2 as well. As well as increased levels of CO2, traffic also contributes to more toxic pollutants such as NOx gases. So what can you do to combat this?

Brady recommends using carbon filters for inorganic gases such as nitrogen dioxide, because although they can be expensive, you shouldn’t have to use them forever. For example, using a small air quality monitor on the air intake will tell you when it’s safe to stop using these filters over time, when the outdoor air becomes cleaner. The more we improve the types of fuels that we're using and the types of cars we're driving, that level of toxic pollution will come down over the next couple of decades. And that’s when the building is still going to exist, in most cases. Essentially, it’s about balancing today's demands with what you’re going to need in the future.

 

Air quality and safety

The PM in PM2.5 stands for particulate matter and 2.5 is its size. For context, it's about 3% of the width of a single human hair. “So unless you've got really, really good eyesight, you're not going to be able to see it with the human eye,” says Brady. And that's why using sensors to pick it up and attach numbers to it is so important. 

But what is PM2.5 exactly?

“Fine dust is basically what it is,” she says, This could be skin flakes, construction dust, clothes/furniture fibres, etc. This is hazardous to us because it can get deep into our lungs. Worse still are ultrafine particles that can actually get into our bloodstream. The WHO recommended limit for PM2.5 is five micrograms per cubic metre. Thankfully, Brady assured us that our own score at Windsor was below this figure.

But what about outside of the UK?

“Around Europe, we've had to take different approaches with certain materials,” says Guenaelle Watson, Managing Director of 360 Workplace and co-creator of Area and AirRated’s ‘Best practice guide to better air quality and design’. For example, the warmer climate in Italy means that many workspaces don’t have carpets. “Although there are benefits in terms of acoustics, it can have an impact on air quality,” she says. That means we really have to demonstrate we're sourcing the right materials and they’re going to have a positive impact. “The general challenge is raising awareness,” she adds.

Area’s Technical Services Manager, John Scott agreed, saying “...putting air quality at the top of the agenda is the biggest challenge. It's dealing with what we have at that time, not what we would like to have as an ideal scenario,” he added. 

But what can you do if the space doesn’t meet the requirements in terms of air quality, asked Morris. 

“We can actually take air from some parts of the building and move it into the area that is more heavily occupied for a short period of time,” says Scott. You can do this using the BMS (building management system) and your supply and extract systems - all whilst opening and closing your motorised dampers accordingly.

Brady added that technology can help work out the areas of a building that need more attention at different times of the day - or even throughout the year. But the use of tech does vary around the world.

Best practice across Europe

“Generally, it seems to be the case that in continental Europe, humidification systems are still in use,” says Brady. Meanwhile, such mechanics have been largely decommissioned in the UK due to high maintenance and expense. That means that in the UK, buildings can struggle to optimise humidity, as they don’t have the same level of control. 

“That's not to say that we haven't had platinum-certified buildings in operation that haven't had humidification systems,” she adds. In fact, you don't always need all the bells and whistles to get the best air. But it does take good design, operation and considerate use of the space, and interior fit-out is a significant factor.  

 

TVOCS and off-gassing

TVOCs are volatile organic compounds. This is what we can smell and often comes from new furnishings and fittings - usually through “off-gassing”. Brady explains that this is the process where those organic gases that are trapped in the material start to be released into the air.

The good thing is that a lot of products are labelled with low VOC markers or say something like ‘this product’s been third-party tested’ to reassure you that it has less gas, and less harmful gases, to emit.

The good thing is, re-using products can make a big difference. That's because the process of off-gassing has already happened. 

“Throughout all fit-out projects, we always look at opportunities for furniture reuse when thinking about sustainability and lowering embodied carbon,” says Duncan Morris.

 

How long does it take to measure the effect of TVOCs?

AirRated crunches all of the numbers and monitors a vast set of data around TVOCs to provide its AirScore. “We take data from at least three working weeks and then come in every year to do a different assessment,” says Brady. The team also staggers the measurement by at least a month - if not two - in order to get seasonal variation. 

And it’s good practice to do so. That’s because Brady mentions how AirRated has tested a couple of other sites where the levels of TVOCs were worrying. “They would never have known that if we hadn't tested it and brought those statistics to the surface,” she warns.

The thing is, most of us are under no illusion that poor air quality can impact our health. But what’s lesser known is how it affects us elsewhere.

 

Air quality and productivity 

“A comprehensive body of research can be drawn on to suggest that productivity improvements of 8-11% are not uncommon as a result of better air quality,” says the World Green Building Council.

But according to healthy building expert Dr Joseph Allen, we’ve been ignoring the other 90%. “We spend 90% of our time indoors and 90% of the cost of a building is the occupants, yet indoor environmental quality and its impact on health and productivity are often an afterthought,” he told Harvard.

For Brady, this thinking rings true. “The 90% is payroll for the people in the building. So if you can get them to be more productive, there is a quantifiable business case for having healthier spaces,” she says.

But that’s not the only area that's quantifiable with an AirScore. “We try to track patterns and trends around air quality from business decision-makers and employees in the built environment,” says Brady. The team does this in order to understand how their level of awareness around air quality is changing. It’s also to get crucial insight into how business decisions have been influenced by things like healthy building certifications - relatively new concepts. 

AirRated’s own research brought up some compelling insights in this area. When given the following list: health of the building location, amenities, sustainability, connectivity, and layout office plan (amongst other things), respondents were asked to rank which one is most important to them. “The health of a building came out as number one for employees and number three for decision-makers,” says Brady. 

“Achieving an AirScore for our Windsor office was important to every decision-maker in the business. However, in line with our continuous drive for improvement, we won't settle for Gold,” says Morris. 

 

The path to a Platinum AirScore

At our Windsor office, we were delighted to achieve a Gold AirScore. Broken down between the five parameters, the business scored: Gold for humidity, CO2, PM2.5 and temperature and Silver for TVOCs.

Duncan Morris, Area’s Head of Sustainability, asked Brady what their organisation would have to change in terms of TVOCs to move up from gold to platinum. 

“It should be something you continue to monitor,” she said. With brand-new facilities, it's just a bit of a waiting game, as levels of VOCs can be much higher for the first few months after fit-out.” Brady also advised that if an organisation wanted to improve upon something like humidity, this could be slightly more difficult to fix. 

 

Designing workplaces around air quality

“So what can we do to make sure air quality is designed into the DNA of a fit-out?” asked Morris.

Area’s Senior Designer, Safia Parker believes air quality is something that needs to be brought up much earlier on in the process - especially in terms of TVOCs. “At Area, we’re taking actionable steps to ensure this detail is included in all of our finishing schedules. We also discuss this with our subcontractors when choosing such materials,” she says. 

 

Industries championing air quality

While there’s a long way to go to get more companies on board, there are some organisations taking the subject very seriously. Alongside Area and 360 Workplace, Legal and General Investment Management and other major landlords are big clients for AirRated. “And they’ve committed to rolling out our score across their entire commercial portfolios,” says Brady.

Brady believes that landlords are starting to see air quality as “the next utility”. You pay for electricity and water - why not air?

“Landlords want to attract the best occupier,” adds Area’s Strategic Relationship Director, Mark Emburey. And that’s about future-proofing the building so that you’re seen as the “best in class”. Brady agreed, saying that “...landlords want to lead from the front and ideally get occupiers to buy into their approach to sustainability.”

But what happens when the roles are reversed?

It’s about equipping people with the right questions to ask their landlords, says Watson. For example, “...we’ve put together a building scorecard for one of our clients with different 

criteria in terms of amenities for wellbeing, lighting, etc. But air quality needs to be a part of that,” she says. That way they can then go to the landlord armed with the right questions.

Then it's about having unified systems throughout the building, e.g. the same sensors. This is a benefit to the landlord because it will give them consistent reporting that they can use. Watson commented on how crucial this type of data can be as a sales tool: “…if you've got different floors with different air quality, then you can attribute it to the fit-out, she says. 


Furniture and TVOCs

This led us into talking about furniture and TVOCs. What items should you watch out for in terms of TVOCs?

In Brady’s experience, soft furnishes are usually the biggest culprits. But they’re not the only ones. “With wood products, some of the buildings we've looked at have been residential environments. So you've got a much smaller volume of air but quite a high material content,” she says. This can mean the TVOCs are much higher. And in the office environment, it's also important to be mindful of things like wall and floor coverings.
 

The future for air quality

So what does the future of air quality and design look like?

“At 360 Workplace, we're seeing different levels of awareness - sometimes depending on the industry,” says Guenaelle Watson. “When we talk to our clients about things like air quality and sustainability, the appetite is often there. But when they come to releasing the budget, putting aside time or having a dedicated person who’s responsible for heading up those areas, it can sometimes be more of a challenge,” she says. 

So what can we do?

“Organisations like us have a crucial role to play in terms of raising awareness with our clients. Not all companies have got a very well-defined well-being or sustainability strategy - but we have the tools to show them the right direction to travel in,” says Guenaelle Watson. 

“Echoing Guenaelle’s point, it’s about education and awareness first and foremost,” agrees Brady. 

 

At 360 Workplace, we believe air quality is fundamental. That’s why we’re committed to a fresher future for our clients and their occupants. 

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