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Air quality's critical role in restoring faith in public buildings

With the UK hoping to return to some sense of normality over the next 12 months, it is clear that there must be a conscious effort to restore faith in public spaces by addressing the issue of air quality. David Millward, group product manager at Elta Group and BESA Associate member, looks at what this means for those tasked with delivering good IAQ

The link between infection transmission and IAQ has become well established over the course of the pandemic, with a recent Government whitepaper stressing that ‘ventilation is an important factor in mitigating against the risk’. Combined with the high-profile closing down of many public spaces, this has positioned air quality at the forefront of the news agenda. 

As the UK cautiously looks to return to some kind of normality, there is agreement that this represents an opportunity to improve the health of our buildings. The general population has become hyper-aware of the air that they breathe, positioning IAQ as one of the key factors in restoring faith in public buildings.

A change in perceptions

While the quality of air within our buildings has always been an important factor for those within the construction industry, and particularly for ventilation contractors, that hasn’t necessarily been the case for end-users. Far-too-often, buildings are equipped with systems that meet compliance (at least at the time of installation), but fail to provide the best air quality possible for occupants. 

The increasing awareness of the public means that this is likely to change over the next few years. Consider the widespread use of masks in public spaces – something that seemed alien to the UK just a year ago, is now commonplace. This is an indication of the seed-change in attitudes towards IAQ, and if public buildings are to encourage occupants to return, there has to be a conscious effort to meet these new expectations.

Improving IAQ

There are several key points identified in the Government whitepaper relating to how we can realistically achieve better IAQ in our buildings. Firstly, we have to start acknowledging that regulations change, often becoming more stringent and therefore requiring higher levels of ventilation. This means that ventilation which was compliant at the time of installation is often less effective than it should be several years down the line.

Clearly, it is not practical to change a system on an annual basis, but this is where it is critical to think long-term. Opting for a system that can efficiently perform above and beyond minimum rates will ensure that buildings remain healthy. Elta Fans’ Revolution SLC EC, for example, is a long-cased axial fan that has been designed to ensure compliance with legislation due to come into effect in the years ahead. This helps to future-proof the fan against further changes to regulations, by taking advantage of the latest EC motor technology.

Equally, there must be an awareness that if a building changes, whether that’s the physical layout or in terms of its purpose and occupancy levels, required ventilation rates adjust accordingly. It goes without saying that as occupancy levels start to increase in public spaces, ventilation systems must ensure IAQ remains sufficiently high.  

Another important point raised in the whitepaper is the need to balance ventilation with both energy usage and temperature. As any contractor will know, building owners and facilities managers have a justifiable concern over running costs. Simply pumping in large volumes of outside air is expensive, and is also likely to impact the temperature within a building. 

A balancing act is required to deliver the correct amount of air, without incurring high energy bills or a reduction in thermal comfort. However, it is currently the case that IAQ is consistently the lowest priority of the three. This must change, particularly in light of the increasing importance of air quality to the public.

Positioning air quality front and centre

We’ve highlighted the general shift in attitudes towards IAQ on several occasions throughout this piece, and it’s important that the ventilation industry embraces this. It is an opportunity to position air quality front and centre, and to start using it as a key barometer for building safety. Indeed, there is an argument to suggest that the air quality within a building ought to be a matter of public knowledge.

A possible way of achieving this could be to create a traffic light system, whereby green is high air quality, amber implies risk (and therefore certain high energy activities should not take place), and red is unsafe. Similar to the way that hygiene ratings have become commonplace at food establishments, this would ensure IAQ remains at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts, every time they enter a building.

We’ve seen cases of similar applications around the globe, often in reaction to high levels of outdoor pollution. A Shanghai hotel notably marketed itself as having clean indoor air, using this is a key selling point to consumers. This may seem like an extreme example, but with the pandemic accelerating public awareness of the dangers of bad IAQ, it is indicative of the growing importance of fresh air.

Final thoughts

COVID-19 has shifted the way that IAQ is viewed by the general population. When this is combined with the substantial amount of time that people have spent away from public spaces, it is clear that work needs to be done to restore faith in these buildings. Ventilation has a critical role to play in this, and it is important that those tasked with delivering solutions are aware of this fundamental change in attitudes.

 

3 March 2021

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