How do HVAC systems impact indoor air quality?

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MEP and HVAC, Khansaheb Industries

Khansaheb Industries MD, Abdulrahman Khansaheb, discusses how the pandemic has “changed priorities” for real estate developers and owners

It has been five months since Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic. In these five months, the world has withdrawn into quarantine, emerged, and quarantined again in some countries.

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The UAE has managed to handle the pandemic better than most governments, with the economy slowly re-opening and economic activity gradually resuming.

As the world stayed indoors and priorities changed, community health and wellbeing has become increasingly important. Living and working in spaces that are safe, secure and sanitary take precedence over location and other factors that were important in the pre-pandemic world.

Sick building syndrome along with poor indoor air quality were identified by the World Health Organization as major concerns over 30 years ago; however, these issues continue to threaten the health of office workers, school children and residents all over the world.

In fact, some building interiors, once thought of as safe havens from outside air pollution may be more polluted than the surrounding environment.

The pandemic has changed priorities and so the public will increasingly look for healthy buildings, specifically in the UAE as offices have re-opened and children return to school this September.

For the safety of the general public and our children, factors such as indoor air quality should be top of mind for real estate developers and owners when they plan to develop the cities of the future.

Although the term is not new, there is much debate on what comprises a healthy building. The industry has broadly agreed that a healthy building is a space that facilitates the mental, social and physical well-being of its occupants.

With 40 years of scientific research from Harvard’s healthy buildings lab, it has determined that there are nine foundations of a healthy building, namely – ventilation, air quality, thermal health, moisture, dusts and pests, safety and security, water quality, noise, lighting and views.

Real estate developers are excellent at addressing most of the foundations on this list; however, often overlook the first and most important items – ventilation and air quality.

Indoor air quality is determined very early in the process of constructing a building, when choosing contractors and construction techniques for the development of a heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) ductwork system.

The HVAC system of a building is the single most important driving force of indoor air quality. HVAC systems can act as a source of pollutants if improper materials are used, specifically, the accumulation of dust and high humidity can lead to fungal growth in ductwork systems which ultimately reduces indoor air quality.

At times, HVAC systems can even play a role in the spread of air borne diseases. A position paper by Ashrae suggests that small particles may be transported through ventilation systems, as has been documented for Q-fever, tuberculosis and measles.

One of the key elements of building a healthy HVAC system is the ductwork. Ductwork systems with anti-bacterial interior linings and no thermal bridging prevent condensation and subsequently the accumulation of mould and the transmission of particulate matter.

Preventing the transmission of particulate matter is significant, as the inhalation of PM 2.5 over a long period of time can lead to lowered levels of immunity and susceptibility to airborne diseases.

Regulations in the UAE have been cognizant of the requirements for green buildings for a while, mandating developers to consider energy efficient systems when constructing new buildings, thereby ultimately contributing to creating eco-friendly cities.

The regulations stipulate that all HVAC systems should be chosen with energy efficiency in mind, considering energy consumption per square foot, carbon emissions, equipment efficiencies and saving targets.

However, given the concerns related to sick building syndrome and the requirement for truly healthy buildings in addition to green buildings, the regulations should include stipulations for particulate matter with requirements to evaluate how each HVAC component contributes to indoor air quality rather than energy efficiency in isolation.

Indoor air quality should be a key decision-making point for all parties when choosing suppliers and contractors for the construction of a new building.

Well designed, maintained and commissioned HVAC systems with non-metal ductwork will be pivotal in taking the first steps towards constructing buildings that keep indoor air quality top of mind.

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