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No excuse for poorly ventilated buildings

One of the Government’s top scientific advisors has called for a concerted programme of ventilation improvements in buildings including professional accreditation for contractors.

Professor Cath Noakes, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE)

Professor Cath Noakes told the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) National Conference that the pandemic had increased understanding of how disease is transmitted around indoor spaces and raised public awareness of the importance of mechanical ventilation.

“I never thought I would see the day when the Prime Minister and the Chief Scientific Officer were talking about ventilation,” said Noakes, who is one of two engineer members the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).

She told the Conference that the pandemic had exposed systemic failings in how we design and retrofit buildings and said we should pay far more attention to the impact of poor ventilation on human health and productivity.

“Many of our buildings are under-ventilated and there is no excuse for it,” said Noakes, who is Professor of Environmental Engineering for Buildings at the University of Leeds and an expert in fluid dynamics.

“This is not just about complying with regulations. We also need to show clients that there is a benefit to them through the health and wellbeing of people. We know buildings improve health and that poor indoor air quality reduces productivity by up to 9% - that’s half a day a week.

“Before the pandemic 5.3 million working days were being lost every year to respiratory infections [figures from the Office for National Statistics], but it is still not as tangible as your energy bill, so we need to push that message harder,” she told the Conference.

She agreed with BESA chief executive David Frise that people operating at the “sharp end” had a bigger part to play in the development of practical solutions to building operating problems. Professor Noakes said it was important that ventilation contractors were included in wider discussions because they understand what works in the real world and what clients can be persuaded to pay for.

“We also need to look at professional accreditation [for the ventilation sector] because we are not applying the same standards to the ventilation industry as we do to gas and electricity, for example,” she added.

She also called for better evaluation of systems in use to assess whether the ventilation was delivering what occupants need, had been correctly installed and commissioned, and was being adequately maintained.

“The increased amount of indoor air quality monitoring since the pandemic is helping because it is making people more aware of their indoor environment,” she told delegates at the two-day online event. “However, it is now clear that it is very hard to naturally ventilate buildings adequately in winter.”

Professor Noakes also warned building owners and managers to be wary of many of the new solutions being promoted – some of which she described as “snake oil”.

“We seem to know a lot about the new technologies emerging into the market, but some of the existing solutions are probably better – we just need to measure what they are doing. They also need to be well-maintained,” she said.

Professor Noakes added that approaches to ventilation had been prioritising comfort and energy efficiency, rather than health and productivity, for more than 30 years and it was now time for a change of emphasis.


8 November 2021


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