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01/01/2011

EnvironDesign Notebook: Designing a Healthier Building

High levels of VOCs are unnecessary—even preventable—in today's interior environments.

By Air Quality Sciences

 

For many architects, designers, building owners, and facility managers, indoor air quality (IAQ) is a hard sell. Where is the immediate return on investment (ROI)? It is typically only one credit in green building certification criteria for new construction or commercial interiors, and it seems like a lot of work and money for something that does not show an immediate impact on the bottom line. And, to many building owners, if maintaining good IAQ has no immediate ROI, it sounds like a pointless expense.

Another serious challenge can be the lack of planning for earning an IAQ credit, such as LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) IEQ Credit 3.2, Construction Indoor Air Quality Management Plan—Before Occupancy. This lack of planning may lead to increased costs if an attempt is made late in the project, which further sours stakeholders on the idea.

What architects, designers, building owners, and facility managers may not realize is that an otherwise gorgeous and well-performing green certified building can lose all of its appeal if the building has poor IAQ (including bad odors as well as stuffy and stale air). Inadequate IAQ can leave occupants feeling lethargic (with headaches, sore throats or irritated eyes) and can cause unnecessary and disruptive health problems, such as asthma, allergies and other respiratory ailments.

If a commitment is made during the design phase to earn green building credits (for example, LEED IEQ Credit 3.2 or another green building program equivalent), poor IAQ is entirely preventable. Many stakeholders may not realize that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has determined that many energy efficiency measures with the potential to degrade IAQ appear to require only minor adjustments to protect the indoor environment (U.S. EPA 2000).

Among the most powerful strategies for successfully balancing energy conservation and IAQ is a proactive Indoor Air Quality Management Plan—especially if green building certification is a goal. An IAQ Manage-ment Plan guides designers, builders, owners, and facility managers in creating and maintaining healthy indoor environments throughout the building's life-cycle, which in turn reduces liability and the risk of litigation. The plan also puts mechanisms in place to identify IAQ problems, quickly resolve these issues, and offers advice on how to manage communications when building occupant complaints are registered. Key elements of an IAQ Management Plan include:

  • Specifying building products, materials, furnishings, finishes and office equipment, and using cleaning products and processes that emit low levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulates.
  • Assessing the heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) system to ensure that it effectively removes indoor air contaminants and provides the prescribed amounts of clean, outdoor air as needed.
  • Authorizing pre-occupancy clearance testing for chemical, particulate and microbial contaminants.
  • Removing sources and correcting underlying problems (if levels are found to be too high).
  • Conducting periodic IAQ audits throughout the building's life to monitor indoor air contaminant levels. (These audits can be designed to meet LEED Innovation credit requirements.)
  • Training building employees and maintenance staff on early recognition of potential IAQ issues.

With respect to building materials, finishes and furnishings that emit the most prevalent and worrisome indoor air pollutants, testing the air before building occupancy is one sure way to document the acceptability of IAQ. As an example, several building certification programs have defined indoor air criteria following construction, as exemplified in LEED IEQ Credit 3.2. Buildings that have indoor air concentrations at or below specific maximum concentrations (see Table 1) can achieve this credit. However, LEED IEQ Credit 3.2 is not a prerequisite.

Table 1: LEED IEQ Credit 3.2 – Maximum Indoor Air Contaminant Concentrations
CONTAMINANT MAXIMUM CONCENTRATION
Formaldehyde 27 parts per billion
Particulates (PM10) 50 micrograms per cubic meter
Total VOCs 500 micrograms per cubic meter
4-Phenylcyclohexane (4-PCH)* 6.5 micrograms per cubic meter
Carbon monoxide (CO) 9 parts per million and no greater than 2 parts per million above outdoor levels
* This test is only required if carpets and fabrics with styrene butadiene rubber (SBR) latex backing are installed as a part of base building systems.

Air Quality Sciences (AQS) has conducted baseline IAQ testing in a series of commercial building projects attempting to achieve a green building certification. AQS found that in many buildings where IAQ was not a priority, VOCs exceeded recommended values. Architects, designers and owners of these buildings may not have required the use of low-emitting products nor had a program in place to ensure their proper selection, verification and use. Compare the Total VOC (TVOC) levels obtained in 10 recent building projects (see Table 2) with the green building recommendations in Table 1. The levels are three to six times higher than the allowed level; and as a result, building occupant complaints of irritation and poor indoor air quality are likely.

Table 2: Summary of TVOC Values (Green Commercial Construction)
PARAMETER TVOC, µg/m3 RECOMMENDED VALUE
Median 1,560 500
Average 1,700 500
Range 1,350 – 3,240 500

Table 3 lists those chemicals of concern as well as frequently found VOCs in building projects. Chemicals of concern are those with known carcinogenic or long-term health risks. The most frequently found VOCs appeared in at least eight of the 10 buildings with most appearing in all.

Creating an effective IAQ Management Plan that is targeted to a building's specific needs—including achieving IAQ credits—requires expert help, as does conducting required building flush out or IAQ baseline testing. Specialized consultants can help building owners, facility managers, and A&D professionals create and maintain healthy indoor environments, as well as advise them on how to select low-emitting products.

Table 3: Commonly Found VOCs (Green Commercial Construction)
CHEMICALS OF CONCERN MOST FREQUENTLY FOUND
Ethylene glycol Toluene
Hexane Xylenes
Methyl propanol Undecanes
Benzene Phenol
Ethyl benzene Nonanes
Carbon disulfide Dodecanes
Tetrachloroethylene Decanes
Trichloroethylene Cyclopentasiloxanes
Methylene chloride Cyclohexanes
Naphthalene Ethyl benzene
Phenol Trimethylbenzenes
Styrene Acetophenone
Toluene Ethyl toluene
Xylenes Propyl acetate

Air Quality Sciences Inc. (AQS) is a fully integrated indoor air quality (IAQ) company that provides solutions to create healthy indoor environments and avoid potentially dangerous indoor pollution. With the largest ISO 17025-accredited environmental chamber laboratory in the world, AQS assists manufacturers in developing and verifying nontoxic products through risk management and assessment processes. The company provides product testing and guidance in meeting various certification program requirements for GREENGUARD, German Blue Angel, AgBB, Green Guide for Healthcare, CHPS, LEED® EQ credits, and other prominent IAQ and green product criteria requiring third-party verification. To learn more about AQS, visit www.aqs.com; and for more information on indoor air quality, visit Aerias, the AQS IAQ Resource Center, at www.aerias.org.

 

 
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