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.
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.
They are, in fact, good pieces of advice but do not solve the problem or situation – that most of our life happens in closed spaces, that we are entirely dependent – economically and socially – on the safe use of our buildings. It is a great neglect of the past decades, when warnings of a global pandemic had been frequently raised, that not much thought was given to the preparedness of our existing built stock to such a scenario. While the manufacturing side has solutions ready, they are not finding their way into common use.
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.
That leaves the general population helpless and without much chance to influence their own well-being. People have to live somewhere, and they have to go to work. They cannot choose on an issue like Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), even less so as it is an entirely invisible one. Neither the ventilation system nor the air quality itself is visible to most of us. As long as we don’t make it visible and influenceable, IAQ is the full responsibility of building owners, operators and business owners.
Perhaps the world is able to learn from our current experiences and shift its attention away from cost-cutting – value engineering, as it is called, though I don’t know why – to a more sustainable form of engineering. There is no alternative to fresh air intake in buildings. There is no alternative to efficient air filtration, and there is no alternative to investing in well-designed ventilation systems. With the world set to see an increase in viral threats in the coming years, thanks to global warming and the loss of habitats for wild animals, the options are: a) Facing enormous economic and social damage, and b) A gradual investment in improvements of our buildings.
Ventilation standards need to be reviewed under these aspects, and adjusted, where needed. The European Union is set to change its EPBD (Energy Performance of Buildings Directive) to accommodate the aspect of Health. But standardisation is a lengthy process and will take years to find its way into the built-environment. It would already be a good start if buildings are assessed for their adherence to current standards, improved where necessary and to ensure that ventilation rates and filtration performances meet current guidelines.
If IAQ would become visible, we could put a price tag on it and classify buildings with a low IAQ as ‘junk’. That appears to be the best motivation for investors to care about higher standards and ensure that ventilation and air filtration systems are maintained and operated correctly. This is where the HVACR industry, along with health experts and science, needs to come up with solutions, be it through IAQ certificates or air-monitoring technologies.
Markus Lattner is Managing Director, Eurovent Middle East. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org