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Shifting focus, keeping the balance

Amidst vaccine roll-outs during the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus shifts from energy efficiency to the need for better Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). What are the concerns and challenges in this respect? Ranjana Konatt, Online Writer, Climate Control Middle East, presents an overview…

| | Dec 12, 2021 | 8:53 pm
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Energy efficiency has been the topic of interest over the last 15 years. But now, we are seeing an almost sudden but required shift in focus with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). Climate Control Middle East presents a brief market study, based on articles that have appeared in the magazine over the years.

Jayant Purohit

According to a recent industry report, the IAQ market is expected to grow by USD 9.54 billion between 2020 and 2024, with the Asia Pacific region expected to showcase the highest compound annual growth rate (CAGR), says Jayant Purohit, Product Manager, Panasonic Life Solutions Middle East & Africa.

Purohit adds that the report also recognised China, India, Saudi Arabia and the UAE as major markets for IAQ products and that the Middle East, as a region, is expected to contribute significantly to the growing market figures. He says, “With the ongoing pandemic situation, more and more organisations and homeowners are focusing on health and safety, which has contributed to a slight uptake in demand for IAQ solutions, like air purifiers and air quality monitoring equipment.” Even before the pandemic hit, homebuilders were seeing growing consumer interest in healthy homes, he adds.

Mahesh Ramanujam

Mahesh Ramanujam, President and CEO, U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and Green Business Certification Inc. (GBCI), highlights how the pandemic has provided us with the opportunity and the moral obligation to rethink how buildings and spaces should be designed, constructed, operated and maintained.

He says: “Amid the celebratory news of the roll-out of vaccination programs around the globe, we must all remember one of the biggest lessons that COVID-19 taught the world: Buildings – as they are designed, constructed, and operated and maintained – play a significant role in the health and wellbeing of not only their occupants but also the people and communities around them. These include our private commercial office buildings, residential buildings of all sizes, hospitals, entertainment venues, schools, public buildings and more.”

Adding, he says: “We can start by focusing our efforts on one of the primary targets of preventing virus spread: Indoor air quality (IAQ).” While these enhancements alone cannot eliminate the risk of virus transmission, they are a critical component of a larger mitigation strategy, Ramanujam adds.

Markus Lattner

Markus Lattner, Managing Director, Eurovent Middle East, draws attention to new challenges in IAQ. More than a year into a global pandemic, the problem of airborne transmission of COVID-19 is amply documented and verified. It bears the question, “Why did it take so long for institutions like the World Health Organization to acknowledge this transmission route and issue appropriate guidance?”

Professional associations, like Eurovent Middle East, ASHRAE and REHVA, had published recommendations as early as in March 2020, which focused heavily on the risk of airborne transmission, indoors. While posing these concerns, he says that the slow acceptance of this fact and lack of appropriate reaction perhaps roots in a feeling of helplessness, as it is a rather complex matter to tackle airborne transmission in our built-environment. “There are no fast and simple solutions, even if recommendations like venting rooms by opening windows and increased ventilation rates may suggest otherwise,” he says.

Jeremy McDonald

He adds that higher investments in ventilation and air filtration, if not mandated, are understandably dreaded by investors and developers, with the push for energy efficiency, in the last decade, giving even an excellent excuse. After all, no air filtration necessarily consumes less energy. And who cares about occupants, who are dependent on affordable housing and office spaces, and who would not have a clue about the ventilation system in place. Air contamination is invisible, and illnesses hard to blame on a building.

Speaking from an American perspective, an air quality engineer warns that the COVID-19 pandemic won’t end until Americans clean up the indoor air. “With variants on the rise, all the talk this summer has been about vaccines,” says Jeremy McDonald, Vice President at New York-based firm, Guth DeConzo Consulting. “Now we’re hearing about masks again, which feels like a step back for most of us.

But when it comes to preventing the spread of airborne viruses, like COVID-19, we also have to improve the quality of the air in our indoor spaces. As the seasons change, it seems like we’re going back to old, tired strategies that haven’t gotten us out of this mess. It’s time to listen to the engineers: It’s all about the air.”

McDonald encourages improvements to ventilation and the use of high-performance air filters and other air purification technologies, where appropriate. Buildings that have deferred maintenance and investment in modern HVAC may require more complicated and expensive solutions, he says. “Although some buildings may require an expensive investment, we need to weigh this against the cost of our health and wellbeing,” McDonald says. “Certainly, when considering our health, fixing ‘sick’ buildings is a much better choice than fixing ‘sick’ people.”

However, representatives also identify other challenges – how retrofitting for IAQ has been overlooked as compared to retrofitting for energy efficiency. Saeed Al Abbar, Chairman, Emirates Green Building Council (EmiratesGBC), says: “There seems to be an over-emphasis on retrofitting for energy efficiency, as compared to retrofitting for IAQ, and this is because energy efficiency has a direct impact on utility costs.”  In some cases, he says, improvements in energy performance can also have a negative impact on IAQ, and it is crucial to have an integrated approach to energy efficiency and IAQ.

As a global community of sustainability and health professionals, we must embrace the lessons learnt about virus transmission and apply them to ensure a permanent recovery and resiliency plan. History cannot repeat itself; the cost to humanity is too great. As Ramanujam says, this is a point in time when leadership matters.

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