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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Top 10 Tips for a Healthier Indoor Environment – Part 1

Lauren Hildebrand

Look around the space you are in right now and take a pulse on your surroundings. Are the lights too bright? Are you too cold? Too hot? Do you hear constant humming from the HVAC equipment in the background? Are you having difficulty concentrating? Are there plants in your view? Do you even have a view?

For many of us, the term “high performance building,” brings to mind energy efficiency. Less discussed are the performance factors that contribute to human health. So the question we ask is: How do we design for, and maintain, efficient building performance without compromising occupant health and well-being?

Over the past decade, the amount of research being conducted in this area has expanded significantly. Drawing from the LEED, Enterprise Green Communities, and WELL Building Standards, as well as from case studies (specifically Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Healthy Buildings Program and Stōk’s report on workspaces that promote health and wellness), here are Steven Winter Associates’ top five (of ten) tips to effectively address indoor air quality (IAQ):

1) Send in the O2

According to the COGfx study conducted by Harvard, when occupants received double the amount of fresh air, their cognitive function also doubled. Doubling ventilation was particularly effective when combined with energy recovery ventilation (to reduce building operating costs) and low-emitting finishes (further improving cognitive function). Increasing fresh air above code minimums is tied to a corresponding increase in alertness, productivity, emergency response, problem-solving, and reported satisfaction and well-being.

2) Turn on the (Kitchen) Fan

Lawrence Berkeley National Lab research estimated that sixty percent of homes in which residents cook with a gas stove at least once a week can reach unsafe levels of nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, and carbon monoxide. To help manage and mitigate these indoor pollutants, design kitchen range hoods to meet ASHRAE 62.1 2013 levels; install fans over the entire stove including all four burners; exhaust directly to the outdoors; and use the fan every time you cook.

3) Take My (Room) Temperature

Thermal comfort is influenced by air temperature, mean radiant temperature, air speed, humidity, personal metabolic activity, and clothing-induced thermal insulation. Low relative humidity (RH) – below 40% – and low temperatures can spread airborne bacteria and infectious disease particles, such as influenza. Indoor environments that are too warm and humid (above 60% RH) showed increased reports of headaches, eye and throat irritation, respiratory symptoms, increased heart rate, negative mood, fatigue and mold growth on surfaces. These not-so-fun side effects can impact performance and learning, as well as cause sleep disturbances. Commission your space to meet ASHRAE 55 – 2017 levels; keep relative humidity between 40% and 60% and maintain optimal seasonal temperatures; conduct regular inspections of roofing, plumbing, ceilings, and HVAC equipment to identify sources of moisture and potential condensation; and immediately address and replace materials where moisture or mildew is present.

4) Filter Me This

According to the EPA, the air inside your home can be up to five times more polluted than the air outside. Use high-efficiency filters to remove detrimental fine particles in the air. The higher the Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) rating on filter, the fewer particles that can pass through. Aim for MERV 13 or higher to capture atmospheric particulate matter (PM) with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5). MERV 14 removes 75+% of particles in the 0.3 – 1 micron range.

5) Free to Be…Toxic-Chemical Free

85% of the 82,000 chemicals in use are lacking in available health data. Known chemicals of concern are prevalent in modern building materials, finishes, and cleaning products. Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), formaldehyde, heavy metals (benzene and mercury, phthalates, microbials), and flame retardants are top offenders. Exposure is known to cause asthma and respiratory illness, infertility and other reproductive disorders, and certain types of cancers. Read the Health Materials Lab Red List and Green Science Policy Institute’s Six Classes for information to help avoid using building materials that contain known hazardous chemicals.

These are just some key reasons why we need to expand our definition of high-performance buildings to include human health. Stay tuned for part two of our top ten recommendations for a healthier building.

Lauren Hildebrand is the Sustainability Director at Steven Winter Associates.

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