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Building with Indoor Air Quality in mind

21 Sep 2015

Are you breathing comfortably? Maybe you’re reading this at work, in an office, or maybe on a bus, a train or at home? Either way, you are probably reading it indoors, which is where 90% of our time is spent in Western Europe. That’s 20 hours of our day indoors! No wonder Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) can affect our health and wellbeing.

Headaches, nausea, memory loss, skin irritations, respiratory problems, coughing, fatigue and even depression are all symptoms that arise from poor IAQ, also known as Sick Building Syndrome. And numerous studies1, 2, 3 have shown that productivity of office workers increases when air quality improves. So it's well worth understanding what affects IAQ and how we can improve it.


What affects Indoor Air Quality?

IAQ is affected by products used in buildings such as cleaning products and air fresheners, by human activities like smoking and cooking, and by indoor furnishings and materials, i.e. the products used to renovate, refurbish and build our offices, schools, hospitals and homes. These indoor air pollutants are scientifically known as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), and Indoor Air Quality is measured by the total amount of VOCs in the air (known as TVOCs).

New buildings especially, emit high levels of VOCs indoors because of the abundance of new materials generating VOC particles at the same time in such a short time period4. Many building materials such as paints, adhesives, wall boards and ceiling tiles slowly emit formaldehyde, which irritates the mucous membranes and can make a person irritated and uncomfortable5. Indoor humidity can also affect the emissions of formaldehyde. High relative humidity and high temperatures allow more vaporisation of formaldehyde from timber-based-materials, which reinforces the importance for building users to be able to control their indoor environment. So what can we do? 

Paints, adhesives and ceiling tiles are some of the materials that can affect IAQ


Building with indoor air quality in mind

The most important change we can make to improve IAQ in new buildings is to involve designers, construction contractors and importantly, facilities managers, early in the project’s lifecycle, to ensure the right materials and building management systems are being specified to create the least VOC-polluted indoor environment. 

Projects can focus more on IAQ if they are targeting a BREEAM rating. By targeting relevant BREEAM IAQ credits, they consider and work towards creating a healthy IAQ environment. Design teams must consider how the external environment can affect the IAQ, as well as specify products with low VOCs to paint and furnish the building. TVOCs can then be measured to ensure they comply with WHO guidelines6. But without the backing of clients who understand the need to specify ‘healthy’ materials and furnishings, it can be difficult to create a good IAQ environment, as other aspects of the building design might be prioritised instead. Which means IAQ will often become an issue for building users once the building is complete. Retrospective optimisation of IAQ is always a difficult challenge!

People learn, work and heal better in buildings with good IAQ

This preventative approach to Sick Building Syndrome is often missed out from the solutions presented to improve IAQ, and productivity. Yes, plants and eco-friendly cleaning products can help improve the working environment, but it’s only by limiting the amount of TVOCs there will be in it at design and build stage, planning how the building’s environment will be managed through the building system and maintained, that IAQ can be kept at its optimum.

Hardip Mann is an Indoor Air Quality expert, having completed his PhD in Environmental Sampling and lead the BRE’s IAQ Technical Consultancy team. For more information on our sustainability services please Contact us.


1Wargocki, P., Wyon, D. P. and Fanger, P. O. (2000) Productivity is affected by the air quality in offices, Proceedings of Healthy Buildings, Vol 1.

2Wyon, D.P. (2004) The effects of indoor air quality on performance and productivity, Indoor Air, Suppl 7:92-101.

3Kosonen, R. and Tan, F. (2004) The effect of perceived indoor air quality on productivity loss, Energy and Buildings, 36:981–986.

4Wang, S., Ang, H.M. and Tade, M. O. (2007) Volatile organic compounds in indoor environment and photocatalytic oxidation: State of the art, Environment International, 33 (5): 694–705.

5Dales, R., Liu, L., Wheeler, A. J. and Gilbert, N. L. (2008) Quality of indoor residential air and health, Canadian Medical Association Journal, 179 (2):147–52.

6World Health Organization (1989) Indoor air quality: organic pollutants, Report on a WHO Meeting, EURO Reports and Studies, (111):1-70.



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