Frankly, there are times when sustainability advocates will talk about trade-offs because that is the reality. When we make one change, often that has a consequence that may require additional modification in some other area.
As green building grows, more of these trade-offs will be made, and some maintenance practices will need to change as well.
Looking at the growth in the green building market, it is definitely the right time to invest in some additional staff training.
In 2015 the green building market share was about 6 percent. According to McGraw-Hill, which tracks the industry, green building now comprises a full one-third of all new construction.
With the green building movement seemingly on growth hormones, it is important to understand how to change maintenance and operations to compensate.
Mothers of the past did not need an engineering degree to know that outdoor air is fresher and healthier.
This is generally still true, but the tightness of green building has increased the ventilation requirements.
Engineers identified minimum air flow needs centuries ago as when they were not met, people felt ill. To combat air quality in the early 1900’s, aka the days of the Saturday-night-bath, engineers determined that buildings needed 15 cubic feet movement (cfm) per occupant of outside air.
Smoking rooms by contrast require about 60 cubic feet of movement per occupant, or four times normal. This is why property managers have jumped onto the smoke-banning movement inside buildings as one of the best ways to relieve the ventilation system of stress and the occupants of discomfort.
Engineers were called upon to lower the minimum interior air quality possible when the oil embargo of 1973 shocked America into the realization that energy resources were limited. As our fossil fuel reserves and production waned, we had become dependent on other countries to satisfy a big part of our oil-needs.
Our engineers reacted to the pressure by lowering air standards by two-thirds and the new standard became 5 cfm per occupant. However, this proved to be very unhealthful and after complaints and rising illness, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) revised its standards back to the original 15 cfm per residential occupant (20 cfm for office workers). Now we are facing some challenges because of how the latest construction techniques block air flow.
Today’s green building is heavily focused on creating tighter, more efficient building envelopes in order to conserve even more energy. This ensures less air leaks in or out through unsealed holes around plumbing, doorways or windows.
Although weatherstripping, caulking and sealing are considered ’sustainability step 1′, many building operators fail to simultaneously improve their ventilation systems to compensate.
A well maintained HVAC system is as critical to a building as an oil change is to a vehicle, but they also need good air flow.
Heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in green buildings also need to be maintained at the performance level at which they were designed or residents will feel a sort of general malaise from the lack of good air.
Concerns about stale interior air and its affects on human health – and residents’ exposure to higher pollution levels indoors – are very real. And even smaller businesses can see the returns. Treebeards Catering, a small texas catering restaurant reported a 25% increase in customer “satisfaction” after upgrading their system and then letting their customers know that they did.
In fact, we have the potential for a lot of sick buildings unless owners and maintenance personnel quickly adjust their building maintenance practices once their buildings are retrofitted and recommissioned for better energy performance and efficiency.
Candidly, ventilation is a relatively inexpensive part of any retrofit, but absolutely necessary.
Air Intake Locations
Owners who are retrofitting an older building will want to ensure that fresh air intakes are relocated if needed. If improperly placed they can pull in fumes from building systems exhaust, odors from garbage bins or other noxious fumes. A good contractor should outline the air intake relocation as part of any bid, so if it is not in the proposed contract, ask why. It is possible you won’t need to move anything, but that should be in writing too.
All HVAC systems should be maintained regularly, and this is particularly important for a green building. Saving money by not replacing air filters on schedule is short-sighted at best. Staff should understand that superior air quality and system performance are set-in-stone priorities.
Forget Cheap Filters
Increasing the MERV (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) rating of air conditioning filters is one of the least expensive ways to improve air quality. Low-cost filters (MERV 8 at around $50 each) will absorb about 30 percent of the particulates in the air. The higher efficiency filters (MERV 13) capture 80 percent and MERV 15 filters are able to remove almost 95 percent of these pollutants.
Different filter types are used to capture various gases, toxins, tobacco smoke, allergens and other airborne particulates and biological pathogens endemic to an area. Retailers and warehouses, for instance, rarely use high quality filters unless their merchandise (not customers) requires the protection. Poor quality air can cause people to feel claustrophobic, particularly if there is a combination of product off-gassing, carbon dioxide exhaled by big crowds and low ventilation. Cleaner, fresher air can make people feel invigorated and engaged. For example, Class A commercial buildings generally use the highest quality filters in order to maximize their ability to offer better air quality to obtain higher lease amounts.
Mostly used in hospitals, manufacturing facilities and labs, HEPA filters may be suitable in some commercial and residential use buildings but are much more expensive. They range from $190 to $500 each. The fly in the ointment here is that the more efficient the filter, the more it will cost to operate the system. As the filter removes particulates from the air and the filter fills up, the system has to work harder to push the air. Delaying filter changes past schedules exacerbates these issues and also stresses equipment. However, the increased cost of higher efficiency filters is easily offset by healthier tenants and staff, more tenant satisfaction and comfort and better tenant retention potential.
Filters are obviously a big part of preventing sick building syndrome, but other best practices can help as well. Here are just a few suggested by experts:
- Require all maintenance and staff to use low and no-VOC paints, stains and other products.
Use only GreenSeal equivalent and organic cleaning products. (White vinegar and water, for instance, can be amazing.)
- Use HEPA filters in vacuums in all common areas and encourage tenants to use them in their homes.
- Go as paperless as you can to reduce ink and toner use which emits chemicals into the air.
Provide education to tenants that suggests avoidance of furnishings manufactured with formaldehyde or other off-gassing materials.
- Ban smoking inside your buildings.
- Fix building and roof leaks as quickly as possible to avoid mold contamination. (Spores can activate in days!)
- Reduce parking when possible and if parking is under the building, ventilate, ventilate, ventilate!
Building System Checks
Keep in mind that some tenant complaints about air quality may actually be related to an imbalance in temperature, relative humidity, CO2 or insufficient air movement in their apartment.
Radon and asbestos are not considered causes of sick building syndrome (SBS), by the way, but any air quality testing should include testing for them as they do cause serious long-term health problems.
If you would like more information on preventing SBS, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers many other suggestions on their site.