Wellness design has certainly seen new growth throughout the pandemic, yet to see the White House itself start to take aim at building healthier environments is momentous to be sure. Announced last month, the Clean Air in Building Challenge is taking aim at indoor air quality (IAQ), calling out to all decision-makers to act in creating safer, healthier spaces for occupants across commercial real estate.
To help building owners and property managers better understand what this means moving forward, as well as how this challenge will impact the IAQ industry as a whole, I spoke with Dustin DeVan, CEO and chairman of Awair, whose company manufactures IAQ monitoring solutions for schools, businesses and offices.
Nick Boever: How do you think this challenge will impact facility owners and landlords? Do you think the challenge will promote even greater awareness from the public?
Dustin DeVan: Yes, this challenge will absolutely promote greater awareness of the importance of IAQ to the general public. In the past, IAQ has been overlooked compared to outdoor air pollution, yet according to the EPA, people spend 90% of their time indoors where the concentration of some pollutants are often two to five times higher than found outside. A silver lining of the pandemic is that it brought forth a newfound awareness and concern from consumers and now, government, and this challenge will make IAQ a larger part of the lives of office workers, teachers, tenants, and other occupants.
Regarding how this will impact facility owners and landlords, it will ultimately benefit them in the long term. For one, monitoring air quality and making needed changes to IAQ will end up saving building managers money by identifying opportunities for more efficient operations. In fact, an analysis from Carnegie Mellon found that a 47 to 49 percent HVAC energy savings could be achieved through indoor air quality best-practices. Furthermore, this information can be used to create energy saving floor plans for apartments, office buildings, schools, and other facilities, making buildings more efficient in ways that may not be obvious without regularly monitored IAQ.
Boever: What are your thoughts on the provisions (or the lack thereof) that the challenge provides? Do you think those who have had categorically tight budgets (like schools) will be able to participate in this challenge effectively?
DeVan: According to the official release from the EPA, many buildings including schools, office spaces, housing, and others can utilize funds provided from the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, making IAQ accessible and available to institutions with categorically tight budgets such as schools.
Boever: Do you believe there are any barriers currently standing in the way of any facilities being able to tackle this challenge?
I don’t see any barriers now that the Biden Administration has offered a way to apply for funds, but even before that, it came down to prioritization. Building owners want tenants and tenants want customers or their staff to return. I firmly believe that monitoring indoor air quality is the most important factor to improve the health and safety in buildings. How do you know if you have a problem if you don’t measure first? Providing peace of mind that is backed by security and data needs to happen everywhere.
Boever: What are your thoughts on the administration’s shift in focus to treating COVID as aerosol issue?
DeVan: I welcome any and all shifts to help us get through the pandemic, however, it is important to note that there is not a product on the market that can test the air for COVID. I feel that we have been treating COVID as an aerosol issue from the beginning by wearing masks, measuring air quality, and looking at ways to implement fresh air, even if that means opening a window. What we have seen is that monitoring indoor air quality leads to a healthy environment and that is the first step.
Boever: How do you think this new initiative will impact the IAQ industry and those who deal in IAQ products (i.e., commercial integrators, HVAC technicians, etc.)?
DeVan: First and foremost, this new initiative will enable a larger awareness of the various impacts IAQ has on the health and wellbeing of occupants as well as what building managers must do to create safer environments. I have always believed in democratizing indoor air quality and giving everyone access to information about the air they breathe. This initiative will place a larger and much needed focus on the accessibility of this information with building and facility managers, technicians, and commercial integrators to give IAQ the proper attention, investment, care and maintenance it should have at all times.
Boever: What are some of the first steps one can do to start tackling in the issue of air quality in buildings?
DeVan: Before building managers make large investments in new HVAC, air filtration, or ventilation systems, the first and most important step is for them to identify where improvements are most needed by getting an accurate read on their current state of the air. By examining the trends in factors like PM2.5, TVOCs, humidity, and others, managers can then make informed decisions and investments to improve air quality, however, without establishing an IAQ baseline it’s impossible to track the effectiveness of existing systems and identify cost effective ways to achieve a healthier environment.
Boever: Outside of COVID, what are some of the main pollutants/contaminants you believe facilities should be monitoring for on a regular basis?
DeVan: There are seven key air quality factors that facilities should be monitoring for in their air quality:
- Carbon Dioxide: C02 plays a huge role in a person’s ability to focus with concentrations of C02 below 800 parts per million (ppm) considered ideal for a productive environment. Any level above 1000 parts per million (ppm) of C02 can cause issues such as difficulty concentrating, decreased cognitive ability, and overall fatigue. According to research from Harvard and Syracuse University, cognitive function declines by about 15 percent when indoor C02 reaches 945ppm, and crashes by 50 percent when indoor C02 reached even higher levels of 1,400 ppm.
- Total Volatile Organic Compounds (TVOCs): TVOCs are a diverse group of toxic chemicals commonly found in the air in homes and offices as they are added to many manufactured goods and everyday items such as cloths, carpets, and cleaners. Moderate exposure to TVOCs can cause headaches, fatigue, skin reactions, and eye and throat irritation, with higher concentrations potentially causing more serious health issues such as kidney or liver impairment and even cancer. Daily exposure should be kept under 333 parts per billion (ppb) and even lower for certain certifications.
- Particulate Matter (PM2.5): PM2.5 are particulates with a diameter of 2.5 microns or smaller and can enter the respiratory and vascular system causing chronic irritation, allergies and asthma, and add to the risk of developing serious infections and diseases such as COPD. PM2.5 is especially prevalent in densely populated cities as they tend to have higher levels because of production and power consumption.
- Relative Humidity: Humidity levels between 40 to 60 percent are considered optimal and maintaining this range can minimize the growth and spread of mold, viruses, and bacteria. If humidity is too low, it can also cause eye, nose, skin, and throat irritation – which is why it is important to monitor humidity regularly to ensure the appropriate levels are in place.
- Temperature: Indoor air temperature above or below 18 to 25C (64.4 to 77F) can adversely affect occupant comfort and productivity. If you go above the optimal range, overheating, dehydration and exhaustion can occur. Far below this range, on the other hand, can lead to dry air, a weakened immune system, and overall discomfort.
- Light (lux): Light (lux) influences our productivity and health. For workplace task lighting, the recommended range is between 300 and 500 lux. For residential environments, increasing light exposure during the daytime and decreasing light levels during the evening can greatly improve alertness and lead to better sleep quality.
- Noise (dBA): Similar to light, noise can affect the health and productivity of your workspace. According to a study by Cornell University, increased illness and lower job satisfaction are associated with the negative impact of noise. Although background noise can drown out distractions, too much noise can cause stress and impede productivity. It’s important to avoid sustained and elevated levels of noise, such as 80 dB(A), as it can lead to permanent damage.
About the Expert
Dustin DeVan is a board member and CEO of Awair. Based in San Francisco, Dustin is determined to democratize indoor air quality for the masses through the company’s industry leading consumer and enterprise technology.
Before joining Awair, Dustin was Founder and CEO of BuildingConnected, Inc., a cloud-based pre-construction bidding tool which was acquired by Autodesk for $275M. Before that, he held several senior project engineer roles for construction companies in California.
Dustin holds a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Science and Engineering and Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Davis. He also serves as a board member for several organizations including IFM Restoration and Bridgit, and is an investor in Matik, Inc. and Swept.