Sustainable Facilities and Ventilation Technology: Every Breath You Take

It's easy to see when a broken dorm window needs to be replaced or a leaky faucet in the science lab repaired, but things we can't see are compromising the physical and mental health of students, staff, and faculty. Good ventilation is the key to maintaining a healthy balance.

The Air We Breathe

The air we breathe outside is composed of roughly 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% argon, .03% carbon dioxide, and water vapor. Depending on the location, our air can also be filled with anything from ultra-fine particulates from vehicle exhaust to influenza.

Outside, natural air currents help move airborne contaminants along and dilute unhealthy concentrations of toxic fumes but inside, we are held captive to a multitude of harmful, microscopic invaders. Effective ventilation not only reduces the amount of physical ailments students and faculty may experience in a school year but also directly impacts overall mental performance.

The Clean Air Act was passed in the U.S. in 1963 and drastically reduced the amount of air pollution resulting from the burning of fossil fuels and vehicle emissions; however, indoor air quality (IAQ) was overlooked.

With the recent introduction of green building certifications like the WELL Building Standard, which focuses on how successful a building is in maintaining the health and well-being of its occupants through the quality of air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind, the importance of indoor air quality can no longer be disregarded.

According to Rob Goodfellow at Dynamic Air, the most successful combination of ventilation techniques to improve overall indoor air quality is the cleaning of recirculated indoor air as well as incoming ventilation air “through filtration systems with low static resistance, as opposed to dense high-efficiency traditional filters.” Goodfellow suggests that universities should initially invest in air quality sensors to determine current contaminant levels and locations on campus to define the most efficient and effective ventilation solution for each building.

Physical Effects of Poor Indoor Air Quality

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks indoor air pollution among the top five environmental public health risks citing that indoor air can be anywhere from two to five, to as much as 100 times, more polluted than outdoor air as shared in a current EPA report, Why Indoor Air Quality is Important to Schools. In another recent EPA article, Fundamentals of Indoor Air Quality of Buildings, the EPA separates symptoms of poor air quality into four categories: acute effects, chronic effects, discomfort, and performance effects.

These symptoms range from the temporary–headaches, itchy eyes, runny noses, irritated skin, coughing, fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, and nausea–to the chronic-liver disease, kidney damage, nervous-system failure, severe respiratory conditions, and cancer. Studies, such as Managing Asthma on the College Campus: Findings of a Texas Pilot Study by Kevin P. Collins, Debra N. Weiss-Randall and Nicholas R. Henry in 2012, found that around 8.8% of college students suffer from asthma which can be triggered or worsened by exposure to mold in inadequately ventilated buildings.

Other pollutants, like carbon monoxide, ozone, particulates, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) come from everyday products such as industrial-strength cleansers and disinfectants, air fresheners, adhesives used in furniture, and paints as well as printers and copiers.

Cognitive Effects of Poor Indoor Air Quality

Outdoor air contains an average of 380 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide. EPA guidelines recommend that carbon dioxide concentrations in classrooms be no higher than 1000 ppm. Unfortunately, classroom air, due to high-occupant density, has been shown to contain between 1,000-3,000 ppm of carbon dioxide which tends to spike throughout the day depending on the number of people in the room.

At that level, multiple studies, such as one led by Fisk at Berkely Lab and another called The Strategic Management Simulation developed by SUNY, discovered a direct link to lower test performance as well as a decrease in decision-making ability and the capacity to think strategically.

The combined effect of these illnesses is an increase in absenteeism for students and staff as well as overall diminished academic performance-currently referred to as “Sick Building Syndrome.”

The Unforeseen Green Effect

With the welcomed introduction of global green initiatives in construction and renovation, buildings have become increasingly air-tight and, therefore, more efficient–saving millions of dollars in energy bills and significantly lowering greenhouse gas emissions and our overall carbon footprint.

However, this reduction of indoor to outdoor airflow has also inadvertently increased the accumulation of indoor pollutants.

This issue is now being addressed with the implementation of new green certifications like WELL in addition to the already established building certifications of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). The U.S. Green Buildings Council requires a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) score of 8 or above for building air filtration systems. MERV measures how effectively an air filter removes particles from the air moving through it-the higher the MERV number the higher or the finer the filtration.

For LEED certification, as of May 2016, the MERV requirement is 13 or higher in mechanically ventilated buildings, according to the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) standards.

Shining Examples

In 2014 Yale updated a historic building containing two of their chemistry labs. The original construction, done in 1923, was considered technologically advanced with a state-of-the-art natural ventilation system, but that was almost 100 years ago. Yale’s ongoing commitment to sustainable building practices led them to pursue the LEED Gold certification which required a higher level of air filtration over an expanded amount of educational space along with an increase in natural lighting.

With the installation of low static pressure air filters, which require far less energy to power and eliminate the need and cost of pre-filters, Yale was able to recoup the investment in two years while also meeting their sustainability goals.

The Worchester Polytechnic Institute is home to one of the country’s greenest sports centers with a MERV rating of 15-exceeding LEED’s certification standards for air quality.

The sports center is home to a pool, four-court gymnasium, dance studios, and an indoor track as well as meeting rooms and offices. This drive to promote sustainability has generated a campus-wide interest in energy-related student projects while fostering better environmental stewards for the future.

Current ventilation technology combines high MERV performance with low static air pressure resistance and filters that last for years. This translates to reduced energy consumption, lower energy bills, greener campuses, smaller carbon footprints, and healthier students, faculty, and staff.


About the Author
Hilary Moreno is an alum of Birmingham-Southern College. Currently, she is the Creative Director and a staff writer for Flaherty Media.