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Inside Innovation: The fresh air COVID solution for commercial buildings

John Bleasby
Inside Innovation: The fresh air COVID solution for commercial buildings

Whether a fourth COVID-19 wave arrives in full force in Canada or not, a fundamental and long-lasting change in attitude surrounding group gatherings has already taken place. There is a heightened awareness of health and safety that will determine confidence levels while shopping in malls, attending sports and entertainment events, or schools, and working in office buildings.

Much has been learned about the spread of COVID-19. Initially, surface contamination was thought to be responsible. That belief has been replaced by the realization that COVID spread is airborne. In fact, the CDC now says that less than one case in 10,000 is traceable to contaminated surfaces.

It’s all coming down to Interior Air Quality (IAQ). Unfortunately, most existing commercial buildings are not equipped to deal with the issue sufficiently. IAQ is neither a simple nor inexpensive matter to rectify properly. However, for a commercial building industry considering its future prospects, regaining trust will be critical for attracting reluctant tenants back into their leased spaces.

Improving IAQ is a challenge that is being addressed around the world.

In the U.K., the Building Engineering Services Association, a trade organization for British building engineering services contractors, has released a good practice guide titled, Indoor Air Quality for Health & Well-Being. Published by the National Engineering Policy Centre, a group representing 450,000 engineers, it pinpoints flaws in the design, management and operational building ventilation systems revealed through the COVID pandemic.

Likewise, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the National Engineering Policy Centre has said that IAQ must be a priority in any new building design. The British Medical Association has also weighed in, declaring that legal standards for building ventilation need to be set.

While this is all well and good for future projects, solutions are needed now for today’s existing commercial structures.

Recommendations from several studies undertaken by IAQ experts seem to boil down to two main suggestions: Increased fresh air replacement and improvements or supplementary additions to existing air ventilation systems.

Adding more fresh air can be problematic, however. Modern commercial buildings do not have opening windows. Their ventilation systems are essentially closed loops. Replacing entire systems takes months and can be cost prohibitive for many building owners.

One approach is to consider modifications to existing HVAC filtration, as suggested by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). Among its many recommendations is to “open minimum outdoor air dampers, as high as 100 per cent” to reduce recirculation. ASHRAE also recommends the use of additional mechanical air filters.

Robert LoForte, president of Veritas Solutions Group, writing in Propmodo, agrees introducing outside air to replace contaminated indoor air can dilute the concentration of any infectious particles. The conflict arises, however, with existing HVAC systems that are not sized for the necessary increases in outdoor air. There are also temperature control issues to consider, not to mention pollution and odours often associated with urban centres. And simply running HVACs 24/7, rather than using on-demand programmes that adjust to occupant demands, runs contrary to energy savings objectives.

Writing for McKinsey Global, authors Stephanie Balgeman, Ben Meigs, Stephan Mohr, Arvid Niemöller, and Paolo Spranzi recommend improved filtration, right up to HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) levels, should be investigated. These have the objective of, “encouraging a vertical laminar rather than turbulent airflow, ensuring a slow, steady air speed, and directing potentially contaminated air out of rooms and away from people.”

The CDC in the U.S. has suggested new technologies like ultraviolet germicidal irradiation which applies UV energy to irradiate organisms, altering the structure of the organism’s DNA and halting replication. Bipolar Ionization is another promising new idea. It’s a concept that utilizes high voltage electrodes to create reactive ions that react with airborne contaminants, including viruses.

As LoForte concludes, the key is to “to evaluate which options exist, the amount of energy they use, how they fit within the budget and decide what could be the most practical for the building as a whole.”

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to

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