We can end the air-quality crisis along with net zero

Graeme Fox is technical director of the Building Engineering Services Association 

According to data from government agency Public Health Wales, poor air quality is responsible for up to 1,400 excess deaths per 100,000 each year. Compare that with smoking, which annually accounts for 180 deaths per 100,000 of the global population. Yet air quality receives a tiny fraction of the public money and resources allocated to health and wellbeing services.

“Healthcare experts recognise that investment in building and facilities management can have a dramatic impact on chronic illnesses”

The cleaning of ventilation ductwork has often been considered one of those ‘out of sight, out of mind’ tasks that can be postponed or avoided entirely to reduce cost. Poorly maintained, dirty air ducts cannot provide the level of air quality needed to safeguard human health and wellbeing in buildings. Accumulated debris in air ducts obstructs airflow, forcing fans to work harder to maintain the desired temperature and air-change rates – so there is also an energy efficiency aspect to this.

Indoor air quality is affected by a cocktail of contaminants, including carbon monoxide from cooking and heating, spores from mould and condensation, particulate matter and smoking. Also, more volatile organic compounds are emitted from indoor sources – like aerosols, paint and furnishings – than transport.

A growing number of healthcare experts now recognise that investment in building and facilities management can have a dramatic impact on a range of chronic illnesses. And, in response, the industry is investing considerable time, expertise and money in updating its technical guidance and training.

New standard

The first British Standard for health and wellbeing in buildings, BS 40102 (part one), is being launched this year and provides recommendations for measuring, monitoring and reporting indoor environmental quality (IEQ) in non-domestic buildings. It is the first standard of its type in the world and was unveiled at the recent COP28 climate conference in Dubai. The standard provides recommendations for measuring, monitoring and reporting IEQ in all types of non-domestic building. It includes an evaluation and rating system for air quality, lighting, thermal comfort and acoustics.

BS 40102 champions tighter exposure limits based on the UK government’s Daily Air Quality Index, World Health Organization guidelines that were updated in 2021, and existing measures in the Approved Document F guidance, as well as other industry standards including BS EN 16798-1. This makes it another important tool in the armoury of ventilation and air-quality contractors.

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), which advises the government, warned that the country was poorly prepared to deal with this “silent killer”, with vulnerable groups, including the elderly and the socially disadvantaged, at greatest risk.

Another threat to the health of building occupants is the growing problem of overheating. The UK’s building stock is not well equipped to cope with our increasingly hot summers and milder winters.

The EAC report, Heat resilience and sustainable cooling, says that both physical and mental health are affected by rising temperatures, with suicide risk believed to be twice as high when the temperature reaches 32°C compared with 22°C.

The committee of MPs also noted that high temperatures cost the UK economy £60bn a year due to work-related accidents and lack of sleep. It said more than 4.6 million homes in England experience summertime overheating – underlining the huge scale of the potential retrofit challenge. 

Joined-up design

This puts a whole new complexion on the debate around retrofit and rebuild on the road to net zero-carbon emissions. With the need to retrofit both residential and commercial buildings to improve energy efficiency already established as part of the UK’s net-zero ambitions, addressing overheating must now be built into any comprehensive national retrofit programme.

Passive cooling measures, such as green roofs and solar shading, mitigate some of the problem and require no additional energy input, but also, efforts to decarbonise heat and improve ventilation for health and wellbeing must be addressed simultaneously.

For example, improving buildings’ airtightness should not lead to additional overheating problems, so long as the ventilation and cooling measures are designed alongside each other. In fact, better building fabric with intelligent solutions for ventilation makes it easier to control indoor temperatures and reduce other problems such as condensation and mould.

Ventilation management is at the heart of the challenge to reduce energy consumption and prolong system life in line with wider carbon-reduction goals. This, along with air quality, will become an increasingly important consideration when retrofitting buildings.

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