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logoShaping Tomorrow's Built Environment Today

How IEQ Could Affect Health, Productivity and Tomorrow’s Built Environment

Vision 2030

How IEQ Could Affect Health, Productivity and Tomorrow’s Built Environment

An expectation exists that indoor environments should provide a “wellness” lifestyle—a way of living that involves an environment free of harmful chemicals and is conducive to enhanced physical and mental well-being, said Lan Chi Nguyen Weekes, P.Eng., Member ASHRAE. It’s also a lifestyle that involves a daily work environment free of air contaminants with optimally designed acoustics and lighting, easy access to fresh and reasonably priced food, plenty of paths for walking and cycling and access to the natural world that can nurture improved worker productivity, she said.

ASHRAE Journal spoke with Weekes to discuss how indoor environmental quality (IEQ) impacts wellness, what IEQ parameters can be measured and where there is a need for further research.

What do engineers and other building professionals need to know about IEQ as it relates to ASHRAE’s Vision 2030 initiative, and how can the initiative accelerate IEQ innovation and research?

As we spend more and more time indoors, we expect a better and healthier life supported by our indoor environment. It is then especially important to balance these expectations with our desire to save energy and to decarbonize buildings and systems. Members of ASHRAE who are mechanical engineers and building scientists will be leaders in this effort, and the Vision 2030 initiative supports these members and their goals for indoor environments.

Vision 2030 accelerates IEQ by pointing out where the information is still sparse and needs additional research. This research includes projects that focus on how to quantify the relationships between the measured IEQ parameters, such as air contaminants, acoustics and lighting and the thresholds between “good” and “bad” indoor environment quality. This type of research can then lead to innovations that enhance IEQ in many types of buildings.

Within the Vision 2030 framework, what are some trends you’re seeing within the industry that might serve as examples for those interested in improving IEQ?

Our indoor space becomes more than just a place to shelter us from the elements and dangers. We expect the indoor environment will also provide us with a “wellness” lifestyle where contaminants—such as airborne chemicals from daily activities—are removed rapidly from where they are produced within the dwelling, so we can achieve greater work productivity as well as a better life.

Resiliency of buildings and building materials is also a new trend that, if appropriately managed by engineers and scientists, can lead to improved IEQ. For example, hard materials, such as ceramic tiles or concrete, should be used instead of drywall or carpet in areas where recurrent flooding is anticipated, reducing the need for constant replacement as well as mold growth that might impact the health of the occupants.

How is IEQ related to work productivity?

Research conducted throughout the world has shown improved IEQ leads to higher levels of work productivity in commercial buildings, schools, colleges and offices.

In addition, we know clear associations exist between IEQ and productivity, particularly the relationship between poor IEQ and worker productivity. For example, if the office air suddenly smells like popcorn, we know it may be harder to focus on the task at hand. The odor can interrupt your work when you are trying to figure out the source of the smell—unless, of course, you like or expect the smell of microwaved popcorn. Even then, the poor IEQ due to a smell may reduce the productivity of other office workers and may lead to absenteeism and sick days.

In what areas might there be a need for further research regarding how IEQ affects human health?

One area that needs additional research, as mentioned earlier, is the correlation between measured indoor parameters and, subsequently, the threshold between what is perceived as “good” and “bad” environmental quality.

Also, additional research should focus on the correlations between the IEQ parameters that contribute to a building’s performance and the degree of wellness experienced by the building occupants, particularly in nonindustrial settings. For example, determining what is an acceptable noise level in an office or what noise level may cause headaches or make communication with peers difficult is a wellness concern.

Are there currently any methods used to monitor, validate and record the links between building systems performances and the wellness of building occupants?

There are some methods, such as building certifications, that target the conception, operation and maintenance of buildings as well as the wellness of building occupants. However, we have few comparison data from before and after IEQ improvements are made in existing buildings.

What IEQ-related Vision 2030 resources can help engineers create better indoor environments?

The list of references to ASHRAE documents and research projects on ASHRAE’s Vision 2030 website as well as the continuous addition of information to the site can be useful tools.