15 December, 2020

Something in the airThe physical and mental health of employees has become one of the primary objectives for everyone involved in creating working environments. Healthy people are happier and more productive, some believe more creative and certainly less likely to be absent through poor health. But this focus on wellbeing is more than just a means of driving the bottom line. It’s an expression of corporate responsibility and business values, as well as a means to attract talent in a competitive labour market. We’re familiar now with the organisational and spatial strategies being used to promote workplace wellbeing but what about the quality of the internal environment when it’s mechanically ventilated or air conditioned? How can that contribute to good health, as well as helping us to be sustainable and meet a net zero target?

We spend around 90% of our time inside, so the quality of the air we breathe can make a big difference to our health. Internal conditions improve with more fresh air and better filtration but that comes at a cost, particularly at a time when there is global pressure on everyone to use less energy.

We need to balance improving air quality by running central plant more intensively against the target of consuming less energy. On the face of it, they seem mutually exclusive. Then there is the setting of the building to consider. We may want to introduce more fresh air but that’s not so simple in very polluted environments. HVAC system design practices can also vary significantly between geographical locations, to reflect different climates.

Ultimately, reconciling improved air quality with sustainability objectives depends on making more intelligent decisions about the design and operation of building systems.

Building ventilation systems consist of fans, cooling plant, heating and ancillary equipment such as pumps and control systems.  Some recent technological developments have been aimed specifically at addressing occupier health. Examples include UV filtration for re-circulating systems, electrostatic precipitation filters for the fresh air supply and ionisers or ozone generators which are used for localised air purification. Over the past decade manufacturers have developed more efficient technology designed to reduce maintenance and energy consumption. Electronically commutated fans for central air handling plant and inverter drives for pumps help to do this. This new equipment is now being coupled with more intelligent control systems which rely on real time data from sensors, which can provide precise control of the quality and comfort of the indoor environment. Data is emerging as a critical element in the evolving world of HVAC systems.

It enables us to gain a complete picture of how a building’s ventilation system is performing, giving us the information we need to make fully informed assessments and take the right steps toward creating healthy environments.

Specialised services, like CBRE Breathe, exploit the latest air quality sensor technology to capture accurate, real time building data. It’s an area which has seen significant development in the last decade. Coupled with the ubiquitous use of cloud technology and the Internet of Things, capturing and using this data to improve building performance is now much easier.

Smart building technology is also evolving and will soon become commonplace. Through this, Building Management Systems can operate at peak efficiency, knowing when to ramp systems up and down to meet the building’s occupancy needs. Platforms like CBRE’s Asset IQ allow us to monitor energy consumption, make savings and drive down operational costs.

These new technologies and control systems give us the tools to improve air quality without compromising our ambitions to improve the sustainability of our buildings. Since wellbeing is one of the goals of a sustainable planet, improving workplace air quality and saving energy look like two results for the price of one.