Innovations in Comfort, Efficiency, and Safety Solutions.
|The convergence of healthy and sustainable buildings
||Dan Diehl, Aircuity CEO and President
The COVID-19 pandemic understandably caused widespread business disruption, and has changed – perhaps permanently – business functions ranging from how we interact to where we work. What’s interesting is that COVID didn’t necessarily create many of these changes – the pandemic merely accelerated their arrival. The effect has been to give a turbo-boost to certain trends that were already on their way, and pump them into full-blown realities. Nowhere is this truer than in the case of the built environment.
Look at healthy buildings, for example. Momentum has been building for years based on a recognition that safe, productive indoor air environments are a key driver of business and mission success. Sustainability is another area where COVID has increased our sense of how intertwined different behaviors and geographies can be. Finally, investors are increasingly expressing a shared awareness that companies can drive cost savings through a building’s indoor air quality (IAQ) portfolio. The capital markets have taken note, and this recognition aligns with the desire to address the needs of all stakeholders in order to deliver future returns to shareholders, as well as commit to ESG (environmental, social and governance) goals that go beyond greenwashing.
If you want your business to adapt to these new imperatives, you need to understand how existing trends have been accelerated by COVID. Below is an overview of the top trends to know about.
One thing you should understand: healthy buildings are here to stay. Work environments are critical to business success, and building owners are increasingly facing new requirements for indoor air quality (IAQ) in corporate offices. Despite this reality, many in the commercial real estate space remain undecided on whether – and how – to proceed. This is understandable – up to a point. After all, who can say what the world will look like next year? The owner of an office building might question the ROI from any spending directed to IAQ improvements. Whether for COVID-related re-occupancy or longer-term IAQ goals, it can sometimes be hard to justify this investment.
That’s the wrong way to look at it. Employees are returning to the office right now. That’s a good development, too, because most large enterprise organizations prefer their employees to work in-office. Likewise, most employees long for a return to normalcy – and that often means going to work, not combatting more Zoom fatigue.
COVID-19 is not the sole reason office owners should want to provide healthy buildings. Instead, this public health crisis serves as a prime example for why you implement and maintain healthy buildings over time. One of the longer-term effects of this heightened awareness will be requiring building owners and operators to maintain and communicate healthy building parameters. This could even emerge as a standard lease requirement. This means building owners must implement holistic management solutions and know they’re delivering healthy air to all tenants. The key is measuring, controlling and communicating IAQ analytics based on multiple parameters and, in real time, directing more air when and where needed.
Healthy Buildings are now a permanent driver of business and mission success, and COVID made us aware that all environments are critical.
As we learned in critical environments, providing significant ventilation in spaces when they are clean is wasteful and can be costly not just in terms of energy expense but also in carbon emissions.
Because the built environment accounts for as much as 30% of such emissions, building owners will be under increasing pressure to reduce carbon emissions over the next twenty years as we move toward a net-zero carbon world. At the same time, due to the growing awareness that fresh, clean air beneficially impacts health and cognitive function, building owners will also face more and more pressure to increase ventilation rates in all work and educational spaces.
These two imperatives of increasing health and sustainability are seen by many as conflicting: goals that must be traded off against one another in a zero-sum game. Under the old design criteria of fixed ventilation rates, they ARE in conflict. That conflict leads to the “Healthy vs. Sustainable Trap” – a sub-optimal cycle in which building owners periodically over-ventilate when health is the most urgent concern and under-ventilate when sustainability becomes the more top of mind issue.
But we now understand that it is fixed ventilation rates that exaggerate this conflict, and that the way out of the Healthy vs. Sustainable Trap is demand control ventilation (DCV) with accurate sensing and control of science-based healthy air parameters. Examples from critical environments confirm this optimal solution. To cite one of many examples, a well-known University of California System school focused on ventilation management in 17 buildings. The results: 61% efficiency gains while achieving the best safety record compared to all other peer institutions.
We know that historically, non-lab facilities will not produce that same amount of efficiency gains, due to their use of return air systems (versus 100% outside air) and lower initial fixed ventilation rates., But there is a huge ‘but’…occupancy rates will not return to previous levels for many facilities, and/or they will vary more dramatically going forward. In addition, the emerging consensus is to use higher fresh air rates in all buildings. This, for sure, means that if left unchanged or unmanaged, there is a huge potential to significantly over-ventilate, waste a lot of money and needlessly negatively impact sustainability goals. That is the big opportunity for the future of healthy and sustainable buildings: optimize these two seemingly conflicting requirements, in many cases improving total performance in both.
IAQ Drives Cost Savings
It’s only natural that building owners would view solutions improvements as an added price tag. In this context, even the most effective IAQ improvement initiatives—such as improved ventilation management—seem cost-prohibitive.
But there’s good news: you can afford high quality indoor air quality. improvements. Indeed, building owners can easily finance the creation of “healthy buildings” that meet both COVID-19 re-entry and longer term air quality requirements.
As an operating expenditure, the investment to implement air quality improvements requires little or no upfront capital. What’s more, these same investments can also generate energy and operational savings in the process – while helping communicate ESG goals.
Of course, it all starts with the availability of upfront capital. This availability, of course, makes it easier and faster to deploy in existing buildings.
Best practice: Drive energy savings through a IAQ program approach
Airside energy reduction may be the largest untapped area of savings. Done on a program level when looking at an entire building portfolio – for example, 15 buildings on a university campus – the savings can top $1 million annually. What’s more, waiting to implement is, on average, 2.5 times less financially beneficial than starting immediately.
These savings opportunities can easily help fund IAQ improvements that create a positive cashflow implementation and a true “win-win-win” for building owners, who quickly see dramatically improved air quality and lower operating costs.
Employees, meanwhile, get a platform that delivers better air quality for the rooms they occupy. And building operators get a life cycle platform approach to managing and maintaining air quality over the life of the facilities.
The strategy of providing IAQ through low-cost capital addresses the undeniable future demand for healthier buildings. This future demand is worth noting. The COVID-19 pandemic is not the sole reason owners must pursue healthy buildings—it’s merely an example of the need to do so. The world has awakened to the value of IAQ, which can serve as a differentiator in the competition for tenants.
The right IAQ strategy helps building owners economically; it doesn’t cost a lot; it can be quickly implemented; and it protects occupants. It starts with communicating your proactive steps to provide improved indoor air quality for all constituents.
The lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic will persist long after the coronavirus fades from the public consciousness. The flu and other viruses will provide multiple reasons to optimize indoor air quality. We will continuously see the positive impact good indoor air quality has on productivity, critical thinking and general wellness.
Dan Diehl, Aircuity CEO and President
has over twenty-five years of industry expertise across a wide variety of vertical markets and disciplines in commercial and light industrial building markets. Prior to Aircuity, Dan led business development at Lutron Electronics, was a partner for six years with Synergy, and spent 11 years at Johnson Controls, Inc.
Mr. Diehl earned a BS degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Maryland and has an MBA from Villanova University.
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