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Returning to the workplace: The question of air quality

Facility mangers and building owners must monitor the elements that impact occupant health to successfully achieve and maintain healthy buildings. Air quality is a huge part of this.

Three major reasons for poor indoor air quality in office towers include the presence of indoor air pollution sources; poorly designed, maintained or operated ventilation systems; and uses of the building that were not planned for when the building was designed.

With employees gradually returning to the workplace as COVID-19 restrictions start to ease in many places, facility managers and landlords must have a strong focus on making their tenants feel protected, manage space effectively, clean and disinfect their premises regularly and maintain proper air quality.

David Butt, area service manager at Automated Logic Corporation says, “Most building owners are taking the initiative and preparing their facilities for a return to work and as such are heeding the advice of their partners in heating, ventilation and air conditioning, and in building automation systems and engineering. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning has core recommendations and can help guide owners in the right direction based on their facilities operating conditions. Also, a recent study provides great insight into indoor air quality and the building environment impact on employees.”

The question of whether workers will be safe continues. David Cooper, a mechanical engineer and president of global property and buildings at engineering professional services firm WSP says, “Instead of the virus dropping out of the air within the six-foot social distancing guideline, it may well travel 10 or even 20 feet or more before coming to rest on a surface.” Thus, sitting the recommended distance away from someone else might not provide the expected level of protection, even if buildings have enhanced filtration.

So how can viruses be cleaned from the air? Fan coil units contain filters to catch dust and particles, but these must be maintained. “Over time, the filters get clogged and they need to be cleaned or replaced, and quite often this isn’t done properly,” says Justin Turnpenny, who leads WSP’s fit-out team in London. “Good maintenance is a key thing we need to manage going forwards.”

Turnpenny says, “Improving filtration can improve the general quality of the air, but higher grades of filtration add resistance to the system: the finer the mesh, the more energy it takes to push the air through – which increases the energy consumption of the building.”

What can you do to improve the indoor air in your office?

  • Keep office plants healthy
  • Do not block vents
  • Dispose of garbage in a timely fashion
  • Store food properly
  • Avoid bringing products into the building that could release offensive or harmful odours
  • Follow the office building smoking policy

Place office furniture and equipment with air circulation, temperature control and pollutant removal functions of the HVAC system in mind. It would also be a good idea to co-ordinate with building management in instances when responsibility for design, operation and maintenance of the ventilation system is shared. Maintain a great relationship with building management on indoor environmental issues.

Final words from David Butt: “One of the key factors over the coming months is staying vigilant.”