Buildings That Breathe: Designing for Air Quality
Most people associate air pollution with factories, countries with large industrial sectors and the exhaust from cars and buses. This pollution is often visible, manifesting in tall, thick columns of smoke, smog and clouds of gray vapor. In truth, the average person is far more vulnerable to pollution indoors than outdoors.
A growing body of evidence indicates that air within homes and other buildings can be more polluted than air within even the most industrialized cities. Since people spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors, the potential for health issues is immense, and we've already seen the effects of poor air quality.
Beyond simple irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, the long-term consequences of exposure to indoor pollutants aren't as easy to ignore. With respiratory diseases, heart disease and even cancer linked to poor air quality, change is necessary, and it needs to happen soon. Fortunately, that change is coming.
Today's architecture and design professionals have solutions that enhance ventilation, circulation and filtration in commercial buildings. These solutions range from simple and easily accessible to complex and involved. We'll touch on a few of the most promising systems, technologies and additions below.
Many products in an office environment produce volatile organic compounds, otherwise known as VOCs. From carpeting and cleaning agents to employee-owned products like perfumes, the average workspace is full of chemical contaminants that negatively affect indoor air quality. It's almost impossible to avoid.
While most offices contain sources of VOCs, architects can incorporate biophilic design to counteract them. The term "biophilia" and "biophilic design" refer to elements of a building that integrate aspects of nature and natural forms. This term encompasses indoor greenery, of course, but extends far beyond that.
Biophilic design hopes to address the nature deficit in a standard workplace through the use of eco-friendly building materials, natural light and shapes and forms. Architects can choose materials without VOCs, such as sustainably-produced concrete, for building interiors. They can also design lighting that takes advantage of sunlight, keeping inhabitants feeling more content in a natural space.
With the increasing popularity of biophilic design, it's clearly more than a passing trend. It's included as an imperative in the Living Building Challenge and has remained part of the WELL Building Standard since its addition in 2014. Best of all, it's comparatively inexpensive next to other solutions.
A workspace with a conventional design can encourage sedentary behavior. Without areas of interest in an office building, an employee will remain at their station, motionless, which is counterintuitive to productivity and often harmful for their health. A break every now and then helps to maintain focus and alleviate stress.
Active design provides opportunities for otherwise inactive employees. These opportunities include amenities like gyms, bicycle storage and green spaces, inside the office buildings, on the grounds or in the vicinity of the building. Instead of taking a direct approach to improving air quality, active design is more roundabout.
The addition of outdoor features such as rooftop decks lends flexibility and freedom to a workspace. Instead of a standard commercial building — where employees function within a confined, often stifling arrangement of similar rooms — they'll have access to the outdoors without leaving their offices, which strikes a healthy balance.
With the inclusion of biophilic design in commercial buildings with green spaces and rooftop decks, architects and design professionals can create an environment that places greater importance on employee health. Concerns over indoor air quality make these changes valuable and increasingly relevant.
Historically, almost all buildings used natural ventilation to circulate air. The addition of partition walls and mechanical systems have compromised these designs, with air conditioning serving as a more convenient and reliable alternative to traditional practices. But while these practices are traditional, they're not outdated.
More architecture and design professionals are beginning to see the appeal in natural ventilation, concerned over the costs and environmental impact of modern heating and cooling. More than that, natural ventilation can work well, depending on the climate and building type, and the energy savings are considerable.
When it replaces standard air conditioning, natural ventilation can save 10 to 30 percent of a building's total energy consumption. That's an attractive proposition for eco-conscious business owners who are seeking to reduce their expenses and employees who want to work in an open, more natural environment.
Despite the benefits of natural ventilation, it still requires investment. Solar chimneys, wind towers and summer ventilation control methods aren't cheap. Still, these methods have proven effective in regulating interior temperatures and maintaining air quality, preventing health issues from indoor pollution.
Looking Toward the Future
Indoor air pollution represents a serious risk, but it has solutions. Through the implementation of biophilic and active design, as well as natural ventilation in commercial buildings, architects and design professionals can address the problem of VOCs. Looking toward the future, they'll have an important role to play in preserving public health.
This post was written by Holly Welles. She is a real estate writer and the editor behind The Estate Update. She’s passionate about the ways in which the industry is changing and loves to stay on top of millennial market trends. You can find more of Holly's thoughts on Twitter @HollyAWelles.