Higher standards needed for workplace air quality
Healthy buildings will help entice occupants back to offices – but air quality rules need to be tighter to improve wellbeing, write James Hallworth, senior associate and head of building technology at Workman, and Francesca Brady, co-founder and CEO at AirRated.
In response to Covid and increased awareness of health & wellbeing, the issue of indoor air quality in workplaces has climbed the agenda. If building owners can prove their spaces boast cleaner, healthier, air, occupiers can compete with homes by enticing their employees back to offices with confident promises of improved wellbeing.
And while protection from Covid may be a driver for improving indoor air quality, there are other factors at play. High levels of indoor air pollution also mean an environment where people can’t concentrate and feel sleepy at work, especially during the infamous post-lunch slump, when pollution levels are likely to be at their highest.
In short, there is a measurable commercial benefit to increased employee wellbeing. Better building health means a healthier bottom line, with increased premiums now being delivered for spaces that put occupant wellbeing first.
It’s such a priority that it drove the UK government to amend Part F Building Regulations to stipulate the installation of CO2 monitors in all new office buildings, or those undergoing significant refurbishment. Updated in December 2021 to provide extra guidance on building ventilation and indoor air quality, the changes come into force from 15 June this year.
Driving health in real estate
But the new rules fall short of significantly raising health and wellbeing in real estate, since standards remain far too low, or are missing entirely.
Firstly, the newly introduced monitoring and collection of air quality data does not apply to legacy stock – an important point considering that the UKGBC estimates that 80% of buildings that will be in use in 2050 already exist today. Therefore, it does nothing to effect change in existing buildings, which should have been included within the amendments.
Secondly, the new rules only require measurement of CO2, not the measurement of all other factors that contribute to indoor air quality; humidity, dust, TVOCs from sources such as furniture, finishes and cleaning products, PM10 & PM2.5 – particles that are small enough to pass into the human bloodstream.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this newly revised Part F offers no guidance on acceptable thresholds. While the Health & Safety Executive outlines an upper danger limit for CO2, it sets out no recommended operating parameters for levels of productive, healthy air quality. And although the HSE states that levels of CO2 around 5,000 parts per million is the maximum limit, at this point, occupants would be experiencing headaches and nausea.
The upper threshold guidance set by AirRated, which uses sensors to measure the indoor air quality of buildings and has a portfolio of over 10m sq ft of commercial and residential real estate in the UK and Europe, is 1,100 parts of CO2 per million for commercial settings in urban areas. But even at these conservative maximum levels, occupants could be starting to feel drowsy.
AirRated currently relies on guidance set out by bodies including the World Health Organisation to create its own stricter benchmarks for IAQ. But the introduction of globally defined standardised rules for IAQ would mean that monitoring systems could be optimised to deliver data against universally agreed benchmarks.
Enhance workplace wellbeing
To create productive workspaces that have wellbeing at their heart, the consistent monitoring of air quality is essential.
Having collaborated with AirRated to improve IAQ at properties in Birmingham, Leeds, London, and across the South East of England, Workman is at the cutting edge of the drive to improve air quality inside workplaces.
What’s more, intelligent building operating systems, like Workman’s IBOS, IAQ can now be remotely monitored, analysed, and optimised, giving asset managers a deep understanding of a building’s humidity, temperature, CO2, TVOCs and PM2.5.
Over the past few decades, workplaces have adopted regulated standards around water quality, hygiene, and food safety. Now indoor air quality must be comprehensively monitored and optimised against universal standards. By improving the health and wellbeing of real estate, we unleash the power of buildings – not only to keep people safe from disease, but to enhance workplace wellbeing and performance.