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Building engineers are the ‘physicians of the future’

The work of building services specialists is increasingly being measured in terms of human health, according to a range of experts speaking at last week’s BESA National Conference.

Building services experts Nathan Wood, Graeme Fox, Tim Hopkinson and Dr Stephanie Taylor of Harvard Medical School

Building professionals were urged to recognise their role as “physicians of the future” by an international authority on virus transmission and a range of speakers highlighted the importance of mechanical ventilation systems in dealing with the UK’s multiple health and wellbeing problems.

Many suggested the current advice to schools and other public buildings that they should open their windows to deal with the coronavirus pandemic was inadequate and likely to be ineffective.

The two-day conference, which was held online for the first time and attracted over 1,000 registrations, also heard that the industry had a responsibility to help support the UK’s ‘indoor generation’ of vulnerable children spending 90% of their time inside buildings.

Ventilation systems that manage air change rates, filter outside air and control both temperature and humidity would be increasingly vital as the country learns more about the airborne nature of Covid-19 and other viruses.

“Opening windows will not give you the air movement you need…it will just make you feel cold,” said BESA Health & Wellbeing in Buildings group chair Nathan Wood.

Displacement
The government’s SAGE advisory group has called for a national strategy on building ventilation backed up by research from Cambridge University recommending the use of displacement ventilation systems to reduce the concentration of virus particles inside buildings.

They have also advised that air change rates should be adequate to keep carbon dioxide levels below 700 parts per million, which would not be possible with ‘natural’ ventilation, according to several conference speakers.

Former BESA President Tim Hopkinson said these developments were moving the ventilation industry into “uncharted territory” as its work comes under intense scrutiny. “We are getting belated recognition for the vital role the industry has always played in the health and wellbeing of building occupants – and ventilation is now seen as a key weapon in the battle against Covid-19,” he told the conference.

World Health Organisation advocate Rosamund Adoo Kissi-Debrah added that there was still widespread ignorance about indoor air quality (IAQ), but she was more optimistic about the country’s ability to improve conditions inside buildings than to clean up the outside pollution.

“People would be surprised if they only realised how much control they can have over their indoor conditions. That gives me hope,” she said.

The importance of controlling relative humidity (RH) was also stressed by Dr Stephanie Taylor from Harvard Medical School, who said it was key to tackling Covid-19 and in preparing buildings for future health challenges. She said managing the indoor environment was “the best medicine for treatment and prevention” and dubbed building professionals as the “physicians of the future”.

The ASHRAE Distinguished Lecturer said numerous studies had identified an RH ‘sweet spot’ between 40% and 60%. Air that is too dry will allow viruses to thrive and be more active, she added.

“We need to start regarding human health as a key measure of success for our buildings,” said Taylor; adding that RH should not be sacrificed to reduce energy use. “We need to get that balance right.”

However, the quality of ventilation systems being installed in homes is a growing area of concern, according to several conference delegates. BESA’s head of technical Graeme Fox said mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) systems were being more routinely fitted in new homes that were being designed for energy efficiency and, therefore, made more airtight.

However, he said many of these systems were fitted by plumbers and electricians who may not have the right qualifications or technical understanding of how they should work.  Often, they were not properly commissioned and rarely maintained leading to serious problems with condensation and stale air. It was agreed that BESA should work with other like-minded industry bodies to address this problem as a matter of urgency.

Symptoms
Tackling legionella was another human health issue under the microscope during the BESA Conference. Ed Morris from Altecnic explained that the first lockdown period had a led to a resurgence of the bacteria in buildings. However, because the symptoms of Legionnaire’s Disease were very similar to Covid-19, it was likely the problem was being under-reported as people were only being tested for the latter, he added.

The industry can also be a source of reassurance to people reluctant to return to buildings because of health concerns, the conference agreed. One solution proposed was the creation of a ‘covid-safe’ certification scheme that would display what measures had been taken to safeguard occupant health and wellbeing.

“This could also act as a reward for the most responsible building owners,” said Fox. “If you are spending more on your properties to make them better and safer, you should be able to tell people.”

It was also agreed that a baseline standard for IAQ was urgently needed so that building managers could assess what contaminants to measure and what action to take. BESA’s Health & Wellbeing in Buildings group reported to the conference that work was already underway to produce a ‘Layman’s Guide to IAQ’ that would prove equally useful to both non-technical building managers and highly qualified professionals designing ventilation systems.

 

10 November 2020

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