Digital Versus Analog – Measuring Building Health for Employee Wellbeing

Until 2020, a building’s “health” was typically based on the number of tenant complaints received during a specific timeframe. The fewer the complaints, the higher the building’s perceived “health” score. As a result of the pandemic, employee well-being is now at the top of mind, not only among facility managers but also among employees returning to the office.

Which Metrics Determine Building Health?

Depending on the tenant’s business model, facility managers are now looking at a wide array of indicators that can potentially affect a building’s health, including: 

Carbon Dioxide Levels: Because humans produce most of the CO2, levels over 800 ppm (part per million) indicate that not enough outside air is allowed into the building. Excessive CO2 levels can result in headaches and drowsiness, which are detrimental to an employee’s comfort and productivity. Higher levels of CO2 can result in rapid breathing, confusion, and elevated blood pressure.

Temperature and Humidity Set Points: This can tremendously impact perceived comfort levels, which vary greatly from one employee to the next. Facility managers can utilize sensors to verify that HVAC systems provide optimal temperature and humidity levels based on changing weather conditions and occupancy levels. 

Building Space and Pressurization: Buildings should always operate at a slight positive pressure relative to the outdoor air. Buildings that operate at a negative pressure relative to outdoor air can experience interior condensation and higher particulate pollution levels from deteriorated caulking and weatherstripping at doors, windows, and roof penetrations.

TVOCs (Total Volatile Organic Compounds): Many interior office furnishings and finishes can contain VOCs such as benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethyl benzene. Halogenated hydrocarbons such as chloroethylene and trichloroethylene can reduce the oxygen concentration in the air, irritating the eyes, nose, and throat. Long-term exposure can increase toxicity levels in the kidneys and liver.

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)

According to the IFMA1, “Since March 2020, FMs have largely sought to ensure building health by following ASHRAE2 recommendations for increasing filtration effectiveness, employing higher ventilation rates, and pre- and post-occupancy purge rates. While these higher rates of ventilation and frequent flush-outs may ensure healthier air – and have been shown to diffuse the risk of airborne transmission of COVID-19 – they may also not always be necessary and instead may be detrimental to other facility objectives.”

Much of the pushback from employees returning to the office involves legitimate health concerns regarding IAQ and the risk of exposure to other viruses such as H5N1 (bird flu virus), SARS-CoV-2 (Covid virus), influenza, and RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus). All these viruses rely on airborne transmission, and an office environment can quickly create a super-spreader event. 

Indoor Air Quality Considerations

Besides the spread of viruses, the EPA has set indoor particulate matter (PM or particle pollution) guidelines for homes and commercial buildings. Because these particles measure 10 micrometers or less, they are easily inhaled and can cause damage to the heart and lungs. 

While most indoor particulate matter comes from cooking and combustion activities, indoor PM can result from indoor chemical reactions and biological contamination from mold, plants, and animals. A building’s IAQ can also be affected by outdoor pollution that enters the building through exterior cracks and as doors and windows are repeatedly opened and closed.

According to Harvard Business Review3, the move to real-time air quality management continues to grow as the Denver and Boston public school districts have already installed air quality sensors throughout their classrooms and made the data available to the public. In this model, parents and caregivers can evaluate the IAQ of their child’s classroom or campus. New York City is already considering a similar model for their schools and public buildings.

Due to the availability of hand-held sensors that cost around $150.00, employees, students, and customers can quickly test the air quality of their home, office, and school environments. Companies implementing IAQ testing can also provide critical information during a crisis, such as wildfires and other viral outbreaks. Once the building’s baselines have been established, the IFMA1 recommends that the facility manager conduct a comprehensive review of the HVAC and filtration systems capabilities to develop an adequate response plan to keep workers safe.

Moving forward, facility managers must have access to every resource possible to optimize a building’s health and provide a safe workspace or learning environment. While tried-and-true processes such as visual inspections will continue, technology dictates that utilizing a robust sensor network combined with a flexible and adaptable cabling infrastructure will provide the connectivity and data capture essential for effectively determining and maintaining a building’s health. 

The most common downside to installing the needed sensors involves the associated construction costs of opening the walls and ceilings to allow for the sensor placement and its required cabling. Property owners and facility managers can reduce these construction costs by relocating the necessary data cabling into a modular solution beneath their feet created by a raised access flooring system. Removing a small section of the modular flooring allows a new sensor to be quickly installed, replaced, or serviced without the dust, mess, or noise associated with typical cabling installations or upgrades. By implementing a network of sensors, owners and facility managers can provide real-time data that their building meets or exceeds the established guidelines for space and pressurization, TVOCs, temperature and humidity, CO2 levels, and most importantly, indoor air quality that promote employee well-being and productivity.

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