Breathing easy: the key to preventing sick building syndrome

Remember Sick Building Syndrome? This syndrome, discovered in the 1970s, relates to symptoms that worsen as individuals spend more time inside a building and improve or vanish once they leave the premises. Symptoms such as coughs, colds, mental fatigue, headaches, nausea and so on – all issues that companies strive to prevent, and we try to avoid.

Adapting office spaces for the modern occupier

The significance of having comfortable buildings cannot be underestimated, it greatly impacts the health, well-being, and productivity of those who occupy them. Occupants require high-quality air with consistent temperature and humidity levels for comfort and overall performance. With many commercial office buildings left empty after the pandemic, employers are keen to get their employees back to the office. But the situation has changed – and so have the demands from employees, occupants and building occupiers.

The prevention of sick building syndrome is more than opening a window to get the air circulating – it is directly linked to the building functions as a whole. Indoor air quality monitoring can play a vital role in this. The Healthy Buildings Team at The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has identified various factors contributing to a comfortable and healthy building environment. Such as: air quality, temperature, moisture, noise, light and ventilation. 

What and when to monitor?

The acoustic and lighting environment are so important to how people will function in a space. These are dynamic factors, in that noise levels can change over the course of a year and natural light levels will change over the course of a day and season. Thankfully, the rate of change tends to be slow and predictable, which means regular (a few times per year) manual monitoring tends to be sufficient to keep everyone happy. 

On the other hand, temperature and air quality are wholly dynamic and unpredictable, due to their relationship to outdoor conditions and indoor occupancy levels. Which means that continuous monitoring with devices within the space is vital to stay on top of indoor environmental performance of our buildings. 

The hidden dangers in the indoor environment

When it comes to creating a healthy indoor environment, air quality is of utmost importance. The International WELL Building Institute recognises this and has established eight concepts for WELL building certification, one of which is Air Quality.

If the pandemic gave us anything it is a much deeper understanding of how viruses can spread through aerosols – tiny droplets released when we talk, breathe, and engage in regular activities? Consequently, it becomes crucial to dilute polluted air with fresh air in order to minimise the transmission of viruses and diseases. Not surprising that monitoring air quality is highly recommended as the most effective method for ensuring a safe and healthy environment.

But also factors such as proximity to roads or exhaust sources can compromise the air intake of a building. To effectively mitigate this issue, it is essential to adhere to recognised standards for ventilation system design and acceptable indoor air quality (IAQ). But simply meeting ventilation standards is not enough. We must also focus on reducing indoor air pollution and ensuring clean air within our buildings. This is where monitoring plays a crucial role. In addition to reducing air pollution, proper ventilation, moisture control, and temperature regulation are vital for creating healthy buildings. 

From comfort to sustainability

By continuously monitoring humidity levels, deviations from set temperatures, and potential faults within HVAC operations, facility managers can ensure that the equipment in their buildings performs optimally. It allows us to assess if our buildings are providing a healthy indoor environment or if there are any potential issues that need to be addressed. This not only promotes occupant health but also leads to cost savings and reduced energy consumption.

As we look towards the future of building design, the focus should be on creating smart, green, and responsive structures. By prioritising air quality and implementing technologies for monitoring, we can achieve energy efficiency while maintaining a comfortable and healthy indoor environment.