How does Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) impact fit-for-purpose environments – part one

Indoor air quality in schools

Every building has a purpose. It also has a set of factors that affect whether it meets that purpose. For example, a school that is fit for purpose encourages mental alertness in students and teachers. A hospital needs to be clean and comfortable. A data centre requires stable temperature and humidity levels.

Across all buildings, one of the most vital factors often overlooked is Indoor Air Quality. IAQ has a significant impact on indoor environments, impacting on occupant wellbeing and how well the building delivers on its purpose.

In this four-part series we look at the impact of poor IAQ on wellbeing (part one), the current standards for IAQ (part two), measuring what matters (part three), and the opposing forces of energy efficiency and improving building health (part four).


What is the impact of poor Indoor Air Quality on wellbeing?

Between home, work or study, and other shared environments such as supermarkets and cafes, people typically spend 70-90% of their time indoors. It can be even higher for infants, the elderly and the chronically ill. That means IAQ affects us all daily.

If IAQ is poor, it can impact people on varying levels. Nuisance and discomfort complaints are the more obvious signs, typically triggered from being too hot or too cold or from sitting in a draft. These typically result in calls to service companies to adjust temperatures or airflows to remedy these issues – with varying degrees of success.

However, some issues are less obvious, with significant but more subtle impacts, such as complaints of stuffiness. Complaints of this nature usually indicate a lack of fresh (outdoor) air required for ventilation purposes and will impact a person’s cognitive abilities.

When we’re in an indoor environment designed for work or study, we rely on our cognitive abilities to think, focus, be creative and mentally process information. But all our cognitive skills suffer if indoor air quality is poor due to a lack of ventilation. Our attention span is reduced, our memory function is reduced and our ability to use logic and reasoning are impaired. Poor IAQ can even reduce our ability to process the information we hear or read, reducing comprehension, as well as reducing our creativity levels so valued by many organisations.

If indoor air quality is allowed to fall even further, it can impact on health, triggering headaches, dizziness, fatigue, skin or eye irritations and respiratory difficulties. In more extreme situations it can even lead to Sick Building Syndrome, where poor IAQ triggers these kinds of symptoms in a significant number of occupants whenever they spend time in the building.

Often the source of these building related illnesses is hard to pinpoint. It could be a specific indoor air contaminant or pollutant. But because it usually can’t be seen, it will often be left unremedied.

Of course, the potential build-up and spread of biological contaminants such as viruses and bacteria have been of particular concern over the past couple of years.

What are the real costs of poor IAQ?

While the impact of IAQ is felt directly by occupants, it has a flow on effect on the building’s purpose. Over a building’s life cycle, the impact of poor IAQ becomes a significant and very real cost.

Research from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers has estimated that it can cause a 2-16% decrease in productivity and increased absenteeism in commercial buildings. In schools, it can lower test performance by 20% and in hospitals, it can delay discharges, which has wide ranging impacts on the efficiency and cost of healthcare.

This shows that occupant wellbeing is not just a ‘nice to have’ — it’s essential to a productive environment and a healthy, fully-functioning building.


More in this series:

Part two – The current standards for IAQ
Part three – IAQ, measuring what matters
Part four – Opposing forces of energy and health

A white paper on the entire four-part series can be downloaded here.