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Office air quality is about more than just ventilation

October 20, 2020

Now more than ever employees want to know what's in the air they're breathing at work. The pandemic has pushed landlords and property managers to take a closer look at building health and many are now implementing new strategies to improve indoor air quality. 

Ventilation has quickly become a top priority in the built environment to prevent the spread of COVID – 19 — but the reality is that it's only part of the equation. Too much ventilation can actually increase the risk of spreading a virus. Humidity, geography, weather, pollution and occupancy levels are critical factors in reducing aerosol transmission of infections.

In this episode, James Cook speaks with Raefer Wallis, creator of ORIGIN, a public resource for data on building materials, and RESET, a technology-driven healthy building standards and certification program, about measuring indoor air quality and reducing the spread of viruses in the workplace.

James Cook: Okay, take a deep breath that air you're breathing in. What's the quality of that air. It turns out that air quality is really important, especially indoors, but it can also be really tricky to track. But right now, air quality is critical in curbing transmission of COVID-19. This is building places where we look at the world of commercial real estate through the eyes of the experts that study it every day.

My name is James Cook. I researched real estate for JLL. Well, it's first thing in the morning here in the US but I'm making a call around the world to Shanghai, where it is a last thing in the evening. Today I'm talking indoor air quality with Rafer Wallace.

Raefer Wallis : my name is Raefer Wallis. I currently. Run research, building standard in certification program, as well as a cloud data hub of information on building products,

James Cook: air quality is something that most managers of commercial buildings think about every day.

Raefer Wallis : I think it's pretty safe to say that pretty much every manager, these days thinks about air quality on a daily basis. Mostly scratching their head, trying to figure out what they're going to do about it. Whereas it's been, it's been a very convenient one to ignore over the past few years. So the reality is most buildings are not well managed in terms of air quality.

And people are really just starting to discover that and figure out how to buy themselves time to fix the situation.

James Cook: So let's say, let's say I manage an office building. Am I able to measure the level of pathogens in the air?

Raefer Wallis : No, there's no technology out there that, uh, allows for measurements, a direct read on pathogens in the air, but there's a ton of data available via sensors at all, to narrow it in circle around the pathogens and get a sense of their survivability they're spread and their potential for infection.

So even though we're not able to measure. The actual density of a very insert virus, particles floating around a space. There's a lot that we can measure to help figure out what the risk of infection is within buildings.

James Cook: What are you looking at then? What can you measure that lets you know, there's a lower or higher risk of virus or pathogen in the air,

Raefer Wallis : Obviously right at the top of the list, the superstar over the past few months has been humidity.

Which is a very mature one, too. What's a measure. But the application of that has been all over the map where. A lot of scientists and a lot of what we're seeing across the headlines is the impact, the humidity on virus, survival, which is an important metric, but it's only a piece of the equation. The other piece is the effect of humidity on the human immune system.

And only when you put those two together, do you start getting a full picture of what humidity is doing to risk of infection then? Particulate matter, which starts to give multiple indications, one crippling of the immune system. And so increase in risk of getting sick due to protocol matter, but more interestingly, these particle counters, having the ability to count both solid and liquid particles in the air.

James Cook: monitoring these different metrics.

What am I looking for? So for example, humidity, what's my target there.

Raefer Wallis : From a virus survivability point of view, we often want a humidity to be quite high. The lower the humidity for most, for a lot of viruses increases their survival. The jury is still out for four SiteScope to virus, the human perspective.

We want humidity to be right within the human comfort zone of somewhere around 50 to 55%, which is not necessarily the space where. Viruses continue to thrive. Just not as well as they might add other humidity levels.

James Cook: What would your recommendation be for some, some best practices for handling indoor air quality?

Right now

Raefer Wallis : I've been advising on schools on what to do as an example. And I like using the school example because they are the hardest space types to manage. And so if you can manage a score, you can manage an office. And office is really easy compared to a two school and you get cases where people are, well, what should I do?

And, and the advice is both open windows, ventilate as much as possible. It's like, no, no, wait, what is your condition? And, you know, I was speaking to a school recently where it's temperate there. Those they're one of the lucky ones that have so almost perfect weather year round and putting the windows makes sense.

But in this case, they were just going through forest fires. So they're struggling with this idea of what do I do? I can't open the windows. And so, so what's, what's the next best solution. It's like, well, in that case, you know, you're investing in, in short term, portable filters, even though I'm not a huge fan, that is the best scenario for you.

In other ways, the cases we're seeing buildings that are doing a hundred percent ventilation with mechanical systems that can't keep up with heating and cooling and filtering that much air and like buyers. How many people are your in your, in your buildings? What's your, what's your level of occupancy?

7%. It's like, why are you running your systems? A hundred percent ventilation? You're you're making things worse, you know?

James Cook: So no magic bullets out there. You got to kind of analyze each individual situation. You're based in China. I've heard anecdotally that occupancy rates in office buildings in China.

Are pretty high now back to normal. Meanwhile, here in the U S and cities like San Francisco, New York, you know, office occupancy is incredibly low bed. Barely. Anybody's gone to the office.

Raefer Wallis : It is true. Life here has been extraordinarily normal. We've been back at full occupancy since March in our own office.

And some of the offices we're involved with life is really. Cause I back to normal, if not, almost, almost fully back to normal, but this is our fifth health crisis. So after you've been through three, four or five of these, you start to get a hang of what to do and how to react and what works and what doesn't work.

These are issues that in Asia folks have struggled with for the past or started addressing 10 years ago.

James Cook: So what should managers and owners of commercial buildings be doing now? And in the future to kind of tackle this,

Raefer Wallis : people have to start with the data. Number one is really, you can't, you can't manage what you can't measure classic phrase.

And so everybody who's out there trying to build a management program for something that is pun intended, as volatile as air quality, without data. Is completely wasting their time. People don't realize just how quickly air quality changes. Add a few people, CO2 rates go up, some virus particles go up very quickly, assist them slow down the way air quality changes we take for granted that it's normalized.

James Cook: for those that maybe are, are way behind and don't even know what they're dealing with is measurement.

Expensive and complicated, or is it a matter of just placing some sensors throughout your building?

Raefer Wallis : Doing the proper measurements? I wouldn't say is not insanely expensive, but, uh, it still requires a little bit of a investment. Mostly around the soft pieces. It's making sure that these monitors are properly integrated, that they've got the right network, the right cabling, the right maintenance it's planned, like all that type of planning around that.

But just to get a little ms. Test for the beginner to get some basic monitors. Put them in a space and get a sense of what's going on to then grab that data. We're following a lot of projects these days, where monitors are just going in for two weeks a month, just to get a preliminary baseline of what's going on.

We're encouraging property, the owners who have limited budgets, everybody's got limited budgets, but to. To really take a hard look at what they're contemplating in terms of solutions and make sure that the things they're going to spend on that are there longterm that they're going to be woven into the infrastructure?

James Cook: Well, oftentimes I do interviews where I don't, you know, I feel like I'm learning a lot. This was a time where it was a topic. I knew almost nothing about walking into it. So I really appreciate you taking the time. I've I've really learned a lot.

Raefer Wallis : happy to hear that. And thanks for having me.

James Cook: If you like today's podcast, you should just tell a friend about it.

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