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Striking a balance

While energy efficiency is gaining significant attention, and retrofitting is being incentivised, indoor air quality needs to be equally considered and carefully balanced in new buildings and retrofitting efforts, says Aisha Al Abdooli, Director, Air Quality Department at the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment, in this interview with B Surendar of Climate Control Middle East. Excerpts…

| | Oct 20, 2016 | 2:14 pm
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Aisha Al Abdooli

Aisha Al Abdooli

The UAE Vision 2021 National Agenda focuses on “improving the quality of air, preserving water resources, increasing the contribution of clean energy and implementing green growth plans”. The UAE’s National Strategy and Action Plan for Environmental Health, published in 2010, has stated that “the disease burden has shifted from infectious diseases to non-communicable diseases, many of which can be triggered or exacerbated by exposure to environmental pollutants”. In view of these two documents, how in your opinion can the building industry contribute to better indoor environmental quality in the country?
The UAE Vision 2021 considers air quality as one of the key national priorities for sustainable environment and infrastructure. The Air Quality Index is included among the UAE’s 52 national KPIs.

Most people spend more than 90% of their lives inside buildings. The nature of the enclosed environment directly affects the health, quality of life and productivity of people. Our ministry takes the issue seriously for the benefit of all UAE residents.

With the exception of pollution caused by the occupants, such as tobacco smoke, cleaning and personal products, and infections, the large majority of indoor air pollution cases is, in fact, directly or indirectly a result of the construction, retrofitting and maintenance of buildings. Newly installed materials and furniture may emit harmful chemicals and cause sick building syndrome, while deteriorated asbestos-containing insulation, poorly maintained air conditioning units and mould can lead to serious health hazards.

Inadequate ventilation in buildings can increase indoor pollutant levels by not bringing in enough outdoor air to dilute emissions from indoor sources, whereas infiltration of sand particles through openings, joints and cracks may also be a concern in the region. High temperature and humidity levels can also increase the concentrations of some pollutants.

However, good technical solutions are readily available to most of the problems, and the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment monitors the construction industry’s compliance with existing regulation and encourages making good indoor air quality a priority.

While efforts are underway to ensure good indoor environmental quality in institutional and government buildings in the UAE, including iconic structures, a large number of privately owned buildings need more attention in terms of air quality, moisture control and noise control. What fresh enabling mechanisms would the UAE Government be seeking to introduce to give impetus to contractors, consultants and building owners towards broad-based IEQ implementation efforts in the country?
Currently, the federal regulations offer the protection of environment-related indoor air quality in the areas of ventilation, asbestos and tobacco. For example, Dubai Municipality has set in place guidelines on indoor air quality in buildings, including designating smoking areas and installing automatic sensors to adjust temperature, humidity and ventilation. Abu Dhabi’s Air Quality Strategy aims to improve the legal framework for indoor air quality, while the Estidama sustainable building standards provide additional requirements for low-emission materials.

Eventually, the new policy framework should help owners and occupants take into account the indoor air quality in their choice of buildings

As the causes of indoor air pollution are so diverse, the government needs to develop a comprehensive approach to tackling the challenges. The Abu Dhabi Quality and Conformity Council (QCC), for example, is exploring unique mechanisms to enable the building industry to invest in indoor air quality through its AD Trustmark for environmental performance scheme. They have set certification criteria for construction products that have an impact on indoor air quality, including interior and exterior paints, adhesives and sealants, carpets, tiling and flooring materials, which help fulfil the Estidama requirements. To ensure the elimination of indoor air pollutants from HVAC systems and ducts, QCC also established a certification programme for HVAC system and duct cleaners and training schemes, along with a certification for HVAC systems based on performance, materials and filter types.

Since there is little data available on the current level and sources of indoor air pollution we need to start from setting the baseline by putting in place proper monitoring mechanisms before creating effective performance targets. Eventually, the new policy framework should help owners and occupants take into account the indoor air quality in their choice of buildings, so that the building with good indoor air quality will get higher market value. That way the building sector will naturally invest in eliminating pollutants.

Building-retrofit is receiving a lot of attention, but the emphasis seems to be more on achieving energy efficiency, with the talk mainly revolving around Energy Performance Management Contracting. In view of the fact that numerous global studies (for instance, by the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University) have established the correlation between good IEQ and enhanced occupant happiness and well-being, which leads to greater productivity, would the Ministry consider championing the introduction of IEQ Performance Management Contracting, as well?
Improving the energy efficiency of buildings usually involves tightening the buildings through air sealing and weatherisation techniques to reduce the escape of air. However, this might exacerbate indoor air quality problems, as pollutants like radon, mould, particles and chemicals can build up unless pollutant sources, ventilation and moisture are carefully managed. Lead and asbestos may be disturbed during renovations or retrofits. While energy efficiency is gaining significant attention, and retrofitting is being incentivised, indoor air quality needs to be equally considered and carefully balanced in new buildings and retrofitting.

The primary incentive for retrofitting with respect to energy efficiency is cost saving. If the cost from poor indoor air quality, such as medical expenses from respiratory illness and loss from employee absenteeism and lower productivity can be calculated, the improvement of indoor air quality can be considered as investment opportunities for employers and building owners.

The World IEQ Forum 2016, to be held in Dubai, UAE, is a platform that seeks to bring together multiple regional and global stakeholders belonging to the government, master developer, architecture, civil, MEP and FM communities to work towards the common cause of better IEQ in the UAE and the rest of the GCC region. What message would you like to convey to potential participants and delegates to encourage contribution of insights and recommendations from them for the well-being of the country and the region?
Improving indoor environmental quality will substantially contribute to the UAE’s mission of raising the level of happiness and well-being among people in the country and around the world. As I said earlier, there are a number of effective solutions to the various types of indoor air pollution. Sharing the knowledge and experiences on new technologies and providers is the key to the successful implementation of these solutions. We hope that the World IEQ Forum 2016 will provide a great networking platform for practitioners and consolidate efforts for improving indoor environmental quality across the globe, and we are very pleased to have this important event at our doorstep in Dubai.

(The writer is the Editor of Climate Control Middle East.)

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