Years ago, I started traveling frequently to the San Diego area for work. I would step off the plane and be greeted with foggy, hazy skies and every time I mentioned it, people would respond that “it’ll burn off by afternoon” or mutter something about “June gloom.” This marine layer is a naturally occurring phenomenon when cool coastal air becomes trapped beneath warmer sunny skies above. While the cloud layer isn’t ideal for a beach vacation, it certainly isn’t something to fret over. But when I saw a similar June gloom in July outside of my Virginia home, I got a little worried.
I wasn’t alone. Large parts of the east coast were experiencing the same, if not worse, conditions. It turns out the haze was actually smoke from wildfires several thousand miles away on the west coast of the United States and Canada. The smoke was making its way across the continent and elevating outdoor air quality indexes to dangerous levels. New York authorities advised vulnerable people to limit strenuous outdoor activities as their Air Quality Indexes surged to the worst in the world. Back in Virginia, I kept my dogs inside and felt new levels of concern for those who are no strangers to hazy, smokey days.
A quick Google search told me this wasn’t the first time this has happened and conversations with those more knowledgeable about climate informed me it won’t be the last. “Climate has an impact on everything and we can’t protect ourselves as well as we did in the past when things were more predictable,” said Reza Alaghehband, CEO at Envio Systems, a company that focuses on energy and other smart building solutions for existing commercial buildings. “The more we change the climate, the more we have to seek refuge from it.”
Even after over a year of cautionary tales about indoor air quality and the dangers of inhaling virus particles, seeing the haze outside of my own window put a new spin on my own vulnerability inside. If air isn’t even fresh outside, indoor air needs to be as good as it can possibly be because, well, because there is no other alternative. There are places in the world where the outdoor air is less clean than the air in modern buildings. I am grateful this isn’t the case for me.
However, many people believe that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. “The challenge is that we used to trust outdoor air to be cleaner than indoor but we’re entering a scenario where we have to filter air due to outcomes we’ve created,” added Alaghehband.
Buildings have been under the microscope for many reasons. A focus on climate reminds us that buildings are responsible for 40 percent of carbon emissions and there are incentives, legislation, and movements worldwide trying to get buildings to reduce their footprint. From an interior health angle, buildings are responsible for the well-being of their occupants.
Now, conversations about occupancy regulations due to COVID concerns and the indoor environment of buildings expand beyond the old arguments. “Building owners and corporations alike must be able to clearly demonstrate how they are prioritizing the health of their tenants and employees,” stated Joanna Frank, President and CEO of Center for Active Design, operator of the Fitwel healthy building certification. “Occupants are demanding design and policies that optimize their health as they want to feel comfortable and safe in their environment and the failure to do so may put landlords and employers at financial risk as people choose workplaces and homes that are meeting their needs around health.” Fortunately, a great body of research about how buildings can help improve occupant health already exists. Fitwel is a certification program that translates this global public health knowledge into design and operational strategies for buildings.
So how can we make buildings’ indoor air safer for occupants, especially when opening the window isn’t a viable option? Despite trendy opinions, adding more plants won’t be enough. Buildings need to approach the situation as a balancing act as adding more air filters increases energy required to push air through. This, of course, then negatively impacts the quality of the outdoor air.
Part of the balance can be spending the time and analyzing the data to see what a building truly needs to offer a healthier and safer environment for occupants. “You don’t necessarily have to make building-wide changes that are working nonstop to keep the air quality at a desirable level. It’s better to do it efficiently so the best indoor conditions are where people are and not where people aren’t,” explained Alaghehband.
Creating the best indoor conditions has a lot to do with filtration but how much can it help with wildfire smoke? It depends on the type of filter. You’ve probably heard about MERV filters, short for minimum efficiency reporting value. These filters range from 1-13 with the lower-rated capturing visible pollutants and true high-efficiency filters rated 13–16 can remove up to 95 percent of particles, according to the EPA. These filters can put excess strain on HVAC systems so it’s important to make sure the building can support them. Because these high-efficiency filters take more out of the air than so-called regular filters, they also need to be changed twice as frequently.
After a year and a half of worrying about the dangers of indoor air, now we might start seeing buildings as salvation rather than threats. As the outdoor environment threatens to make a turn for the worse, our dependency on the indoors grows. There is a lot of research available about how the built environment and air quality impacts our health. There is also an abundance of innovative technology offering solutions to the growing problem, whether it be retrofitting air ducts, adding integrated sensors, air purifiers or many others. However, many questions remain. “How can the people running buildings be empowered to optimize health and how do we balance this with energy efficiency? That’s what keeps me up at night,” said Frank. “The knowledge exists in silos, we now need to work together to meet this evolving challenge.” The time has come for buildings to become a safe place for people to live, work and play before we’re all operating in a haze-filled world.