How commercial building owners can improve indoor air quality and reduce
As the world emerges from the pandemic, we as a society face two key challenges: First, how can we integrate lessons learned about health and shared spaces in the future? And second, how do we stay mindful of these considerations while addressing the existential threat of climate change? With the office workforce returning, commercial real estate is the battleground where these challenges must be met head-on.
Building owners are under pressure to solve this paradox of maintaining indoor air quality at a new, higher level, while not only avoiding increasing energy consumption, but also actively reducing it to achieve ambitious emissions targets. The traditional HVAC approach of simply monitoring the temperature and turning the knob accordingly is simply not enough in a post-pandemic, carbon-conscious world. The key tool that commercial real estate must adopt to overcome this global challenge is the informed and strategic use of data.
Studies show that air quality is the top concern for most employees returning to in-person work. According to the EPA, there are two main methods to alleviate this concern. The first pollutants to be diluted with ventilation from outdoor air can be limited by poor outdoor air quality or weather conditions. In addition, the temperature of this air must be within a comfortable range for the occupants of the building. If not, energy-intensive resources will be needed to heat or cool that air, a process that becomes more difficult as a greater percentage of the air in the office comes from outside.
As a result, many offices are turning to the second EPA-recommended method: portable air cleaners and HVAC or furnace filters and other duct-mounted air cleaners installed in a central HVAC system. Although effective in removing harmful pollutants from the air, building managers again face the problem of energy consumption. In a typical commercial building, HVAC accounts for up to 40% of total energy consumption. This figure can be even higher in buildings that incorporate the use of thicker MERV 13 filters to capture finer particles such as aerosols that can transmit disease. Although more effective than MERV 8 at cleaning indoor air, the trade-off in energy consumption once again emerges.
Although some may assume that this higher rate of energy consumption is justifiable if it ensures safe indoor air quality, it should not be taken lightly that the pressure on the commercial real estate to reduce emissions is important. According to the US Department of Energy, commercial buildings account for 35% of the electricity consumed in the United States, producing 16% of all carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. As a result, real estate investors are demanding strategies to reduce carbon emissions, seeing ESG objectives no longer as “things to have”, but as “must-haves”. For property developers and owners dependent on these investors, poor performance in reducing emissions is simply unacceptable.
While many building owners may feel stuck between addressing health and safety or sustainability, with data and technology, saving energy and strategically monitoring and cleaning indoor air can work. coherently. An easy way to get started is with the installation of localized HEPA filters, which help improve health while simultaneously reducing energy costs. Spot HEPA purifiers are inexpensive and energy efficient, typically running on the same wattage as a medium-intensity light bulb. They can clean spaces up to 1,200 square feet, about the size of most offices and conference rooms, the areas where staff spend the most time.
But why stop there? Today’s technology allows for a much more comprehensive approach, using advanced sensors. These affordable sensors can be easily integrated into traditional HVAC systems in commercial buildings, providing real-time data that then informs the deployment of air filtration and temperature control. By activating localized purifiers specifically where people are and avoiding their use in unoccupied areas of a building, these strategic HVAC systems can result in a more efficient indoor air purification system with significant reductions in energy consumption.
These energy savings not only improve ESG performance to please investors and help the planet, but also save property owners a lot of money. Improved use of HVAC based on data, rather than the archaic hot/cold model, leads to lower energy costs, higher cap rates and better lending potential. Companies occupying these office buildings can also save money, with studies estimating that good ventilation in a workspace can increase productivity by $6,500 per person per year.
The truth is, building managers who don’t update their HVAC with better indoor air quality and filtration data are already behind the times. In five years, these tools will be ubiquitous. An outdated HVAC system puts employees and sustainability goals at risk, but the solution is simple, readily available, and effective.
Ray Wu is the CEO and co-founder of Wynd, which provides indoor air quality monitoring and improvement solutions for commercial office environments.