Winter sees us spend 90% of our time indoors, but do we give due consideration to the indoor air we are breathing?

Beth Ambrose

This time of year, it is well documented that we spend around 90% of our time indoors so we are probably more conscious than usual about the quality of the environment we are living and working in. Those still managing to get outdoors to train for a triathlon or simply cycle to work might be increasingly aware of the high levels of outdoor urban air pollution – at least that which can be seen and smelt. But does the quality of the indoor air we breathe on a daily basis get the consideration it deserves?

Workers in the property sector will have found it difficult to ignore many of the health and wellbeing-focused reports published by major corporate and property industry bodies in the UK of late. Dialogue surrounding the health, wellbeing and productivity of a company’s employees is prevalent in today’s business arena. For example, the World Green Building Council recently launched its ‘Better Places for People’ campaign and the team behind the ‘WELL’ certification is ramping up its marketing of the new standard in Europe through a number of training workshops, events and partnerships. Bodies such as RICS, BCO and CBI have all been involved with wellbeing working groups, conferences and reports.

Indoor environmental quality is now the hot sustainability topic for the industry, moving the conversation on from energy efficiency; a key focus of the past decade. This makes a lot of financial sense. As a rough rule of thumb, an average company spending £300 per square metre on rent, could be spending £30 per square metre annually on energy bills but as much as £3,000 per square metre on employee wages. Therefore anything that positively influences employee comfort, reduces illness and improves cognitive function supports business success to a far greater extent than any other property intervention.

Does the quality of the indoor air we breathe on a daily basis get the consideration it deserves?

Herein lies the reason for the epiphany in the past couple of years regarding the importance of some of the most basic office features to businesses. A huge number of peer reviewed research studies suggest that better indoor air quality (e.g. with low concentrations of CO2 and pollutants and high fresh air exchange rates) can lead to productivity improvements of as much as 8-11%[1]. This is through two key benefits; the increase of occupant cognitive function, and the reduction in illness absenteeism from respiratory ailments for instance. The specific findings of some of these studies are quite striking.

For example, a recent Harvard study demonstrated that people who work in offices with enhanced ventilation and better than average levels of indoor volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and carbon dioxide concentrations have significantly higher cognitive functioning scores in important areas than those who work in offices with typical levels of these pollutants. These include responding to a crisis (131% higher); developing strategy (288% higher); and information usage (299% higher). Conclusions can justifiably be drawn that that these improvements in cognitive function will have a direct benefit on the quality and speed of creation of work outputs, with subsequent positive impacts on corporate revenues.

Improving air quality can also reduce the risk of respiratory illnesses such as coughs and colds, which although seemingly minor, caused the loss of a staggering 27 million work days in 2013 in the UK.[2] Short term sick leave was found in one particular indicative study to be 35% lower in offices ventilated by an outdoor air supply rate of 24 litres/second compared to buildings with rates of 12 l/s. The same study estimated the value of increased ventilation to be $400 per employee per year.[3] Research has also found that getting humidity levels right can also reduce the transmission rates of cold and flu viruses, which interestingly spread much more easily in an office with overly dry air. Quantification of cost savings and paybacks here is pretty easy. Given that the cost of sickness to the employer is estimated at an average £595/employee/year in the UK[4], for a corporate headquarters with 2,000 employees, this equates to total losses of over £1 million per year. Reducing this amount even by 20% through simple changes to mechanical ventilation systems and introducing indoor planting for example, would result in annual savings of around £200,000 from the improvements to this one building alone.

Property sector professionals all over the country are now waking up to the effect of a building’s health & wellbeing performance on its desirability. With fitbits, portable sensors and phone apps proliferating, we will soon have access to ‘big data’, which will only add support to the view that an indoor environment designed to support people’s health and cognitive function boosts the bottom line. Although clearly intuitive but sometimes still challenging to fully quantify, my hope is that we can soon draw a line under the endless debates over the business case. Let’s just crack on with delivering healthy buildings, a welcome breath of fresh air for us all.

Beth Ambrose, associate director for Upstream Sustainability Services at JLL

[1] World Green Building Council: Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices, 2014

[2] Office for National Statistics (2014)  Full Report: Sickness Absence in the Labour Market

[3] Milton DK. Glencross PM. and Walters MD. (2000) Risk of Sick Leave Associated with Outdoor Air Supply Rate, Humidification, and Occupant Complaints. Indoor Air 10, pp 212-221.

[4] World Green Building Council: Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices, 2014