As more people return to the office and masks are coming off, clean indoor air will be key to helping everyone stay safe from COVID-19 and other viruses. Most scientists now concur that COVID-19 is airborne, meaning it spreads via microscopic aerosols floating in the indoor air. To fight airborne diseases, many office buildings have added enhanced ventilation and filtration systems to continuously purify the air. This is similar to commercial airliners, where the air is refreshed every three minutes.
For more than a year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization claimed that COVID-19 was not airborne but transmitted via larger droplets produced by coughing, sneezing, talking or exhaling that would quickly fall to the ground. They recommended frequent hand washing and staying six feet away from others. But scientists eventually discovered that COVID-19 is mainly transmitted indoors as an aerosol. These aerosols quickly dissolve outdoors but can float around in indoor air for a few hours. That means it’s possible to be exposed to COVID-19 in an indoor, unventilated space, by someone who is a lot further than six feet away. The scientific recommendations included improved ventilation and filtration to allow aerosols to disperse.
While the medical community and scientists debated, many owners of office buildings decided to take action. They increased ventilation and installed filtration systems and added ultraviolet lighting in their HVAC systems to fight infectious aerosols. (Ultraviolet lights have been proven to destroy or deactivate a wide range of pathogens.) They stepped up sanitation measures and enhanced outdoor workspaces to allow people to work in fresh air. These measures create a much healthier work environment, reducing the risk of not only COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases but also the dangers posed by pollutants and allergens.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air pollutants are often two to five times higher than outdoor levels. This is concerning when Americans, on average, spend 90% of their time indoors. Pollutants can cause health problems, and many studies have shown a link between chronic illness and decreased productivity.
This partially explains the rise in corporate wellness programs. The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans found that 66% of employers offering wellness efforts reported increased productivity. In addition, a study by Harvard and Syracuse Universities found improved indoor air can enhance cognitive performance.
The pandemic also accelerated the focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria. A people-first approach, representing the S in ESG, includes a healthy work environment that boosts wellness and productivity. Comparable with green building certifications such as LEED, there are third-party healthy building certification systems focused on promoting health and well-being in the built environment. These organizations, including the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) and Fitwel, have seen a surge in registrations. Office workers want to know what their building owners are doing to provide a healthy and safe work environment. Third-party certifications communicate those health and safety efforts.
Ensuring that clean indoor air stays at the forefront, the Biden administration recently launched the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, which encourages building owners to improve indoor air quality and protect public health. According to a document published in March by the EPA, building owners can use funds from the American Rescue Plan and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to help pay for indoor air quality improvements such as portable air cleaners and ultraviolet germicidal irradiation systems.
The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) also provides recommendations for reducing exposure to airborne contaminants. They include increasing the filter rating on the air handlers from MERV-8 to MERV-13 or higher. (MERV, or Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value, measures a filter’s ability to capture microscopic particles. The higher the MREV rating, the better the filter performs at trapping germs, pollen, dust and mold.)
If building owners prioritize indoor air quality, the office can be an extremely safe and productive place. Should something like COVID-19 happen again, these facilities will be ahead of the curve when it comes to minimizing future workplace disruptions.
Greg Fuller is president and COO of Granite Properties, a commercial real estate investment, development and management company, and a former NAIOP chair.
The EPA’s Clean Air in Buildings Challenge
In March 2022, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, which aims to improve indoor air quality in buildings and reduce the airborne spread of viruses and other contaminants. Here are the recommendations from the challenge: