We Need a Common Set of Standards for Indoor Air Quality

Published 2022-07-19

It’s time for greater transparency of indoor air quality metrics in commercial real estate.

By Steve Grenon

As new subvariants of the coronavirus spread, creating the pandemic’s latest wave of uncertainty, building owners, landlords and facility managers are likely to face mounting pressure from tenants and workers to ensure the air in their buildings is safe. The SEC's proposal this year that companies be required to disclose certain climate-related information will likely lead to more oversight of indoor air quality in the near future.

It's about time.

As more and more workers return to the office on a full- or part-time basis, many will be asking questions about the quality of the air they're breathing. In a recent study, U.S. workers ranked air quality as their number-one concern about returning to the workplace.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued building owners and operators a call to arms in March on indoor air quality, which should help address those concerns. It came in the form of the “Clean Air in Buildings Challenge,” a set of guidelines calling for best practices on ventilation, air filtration and air purification as part of the National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan. Funds from the federal government's $1.9 trillion American Rescue plan will be made available to support upgrades for communities and businesses.

The reasons to take action go well beyond COVID and will remain critical long after the pandemic subsides. Many other diseases, from influenza to tuberculosis, are transmissible by air, and particulate matter pollution has long been linked to heart disease, asthma and lung cancer. Recent research has even suggested that airborne pollutants can cause decreased cognitive function.

The people and businesses in charge of maintaining buildings have a responsibility to make improvements as soon as possible. Doing so will require a significant investment, but those who act now–and the number taking action is growing–stand to reap potentially enormous long-term returns. 

Vin Gupta, the chief health officer at Amazon, characterizes indoor air quality as “the big challenge of our time” and sees the benefits of clean air in both workforce retention and long-term cost outlooks. Research supports Gupta's claim. For example, a 2015 study estimated that proper workspace ventilation can increase productivity by $6,500 per person per year. 

Developing a plan

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) disclosure requirements have evolved considerably over the past decade. In the process, they have forced the commercial real estate sector to establish best practices for a range of efforts, including responsible recycling, water reduction, and energy efficiency. Indoor air quality has not become a standard feature of ESG reporting to this point, but it should be. In addition, there should be full transparency in the metrics used to measure air safety. I believe the shift will happen sooner rather than later, given the interest I am seeing among top commercial real estate firms. 

To address the problem effectively, building owners and operators across the spectrum must adopt a rigorous and measurable approach within their indoor air quality policies.

They can start by learning the latest science about improving indoor air quality. Making improvements to existing ventilation and air filtration systems has been proven to help, as has increasing the air exchange between indoor and outdoor environments. Portable air purifiers are gaining traction as an effective part of the solution as well. For example, SL Green, owner of the Manhattan skyscraper One Vanderbilt, installed portable air purification products this spring that employ NanoStrike™ technology across its office floors and other heavily trafficked areas of the building. The technology has the ability to destroy harmful microorganisms such as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, at the cellular level. SL Green also implemented bipolar ionization to provide continuous purification in its central air system as part of One Vanderbilt’s air quality upgrade.

As owners and operators create plans for their buildings, it will be important to sort proven science from inflated claims. Likewise, those in charge of buildings must realize that optimizing indoor air quality can't be achieved with a simple off-the-shelf purchase. Instead, they should consult with experts who can address indoor air quality problems holistically and implement a diversity of solutions.

Once decision-makers have established a plan, it will be incumbent on them to get the word about indoor air quality out to tenants and employees. Communication is critical because air quality by nature is invisible. Some companies produce informational videos about indoor air quality that they play in their building's elevators. Other options include hosting webinars, sending out regular e-newsletters or including air quality protocols in tenant engagement apps. 

Tracking progress through regular monitoring will help building owners and operators fine tune their systems while also providing crucial data they can share with tenants, investors and other stakeholders. Localized air purifiers and analyzer modules can be set up in spaces where staff spend the most time and can offer real-time updates on the level of air pollutants. 

Creating new standards

A clearly articulated set of guidelines can lead to more responsible development practices. As of yet, however, there’s no widely accepted industry consensus on standards and data transparency as the sector works toward improving the quality of indoor air.

Here's how I see that changing: As leading-edge companies begin to follow the EPA’s “Clean Air in Buildings Challenge,” they must do more. They should also share robust indoor air quality data in their ESG reporting. That will motivate other companies to match or exceed their efforts, and a new standard of transparency will emerge that provides a template for the industry. 

Commercial real estate is at an inflection point. For those overseeing indoor spaces, improving air quality is both an opportunity and a responsibility. Tenants and employees are already calling for cleaner air. Companies that fail to provide it will have a harder time competing for and keeping high-quality tenants, ultimately reducing the value of their assets. Improving indoor air quality—and including it in ESG reporting—can give building owners a competitive advantage. It's also the right thing to do.

Steve Grenon is Chief Technology Officer at WellAir.

-Steelcase Global Report: “Changing Expectation and the Future of Work”
-EPA: “Clean Air in Buildings Challenge”
-American Lung Association – “Particle Pollution”
-International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health ­– paper called “Economic, Environmental and Health Implications of Enhanced Ventilation in Office Buildings”

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