Through Pandemics and Wildfires, Can Air Sensors Keep Offices Safe?

As wildfire smoke began to blanket New York City in June, employees at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, an architecture and design firm in lower Manhattan, were in full view of the unfolding crisis. From his desk, nearly 30 stories above the ground, they watched the sky change from hazy slate blue in the morning to dirty dishwater gray at noon. By mid-afternoon, they were looking at an otherworldly skyline.

“It was an apocalyptic orange,” said the firm’s architect Charles Harris.

But inside the office, cool air rippled through vents running along the ceiling, and large screens reassured employees that the air quality inside was very good.

The assessment was based on readings from indoor air quality sensors that track real-time levels of pollutants, including particulate matter, that makes wildfire smoke so dangerous. The sensor was installed during the pandemic, but has proven its worth in the midst of a new air quality emergency.

“I can tell everyone who works here, ‘It’s safe to come to the office,'” said Chris Cooper, a design partner at the company.

In the United States, there are few indoor air quality regulations, and once a building is put into operation, residents typically know very little about whether the air they are breathing is safe.

Indoor air quality sensors make the invisible visible. Design and engineering firms themselves are among the early adopters, but the pandemic has sparked interest in the technology from clients who are monitoring air quality in real time, optimizing energy usage and staying vigilant against COVID-19. It says it uses the technology to attract tenants and employees to

“I think there’s a new notion that residents want data about indoor air quality,” says Gideon D’Arucangelo, a designer at Arup, a global design and engineering firm. “And we’re getting to the point where technology makes that information available.”

Still, to get the most out of new technologies, long-standing obstacles to improving indoor air quality need to be addressed, such as aging infrastructure and lack of regulation in the country. Experts said interest may be waning now that the emergency phase of the pandemic is over.

Also, a sensor system is not a simple solution. “It’s a great tool,” says Harris. “But we are still learning what to do with it.”

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, known as SOM, is not only leasing space in the World Trade Center 7 skyscraper, but also after the original World Trade Center was destroyed in the September 11 attacks. I also designed the entire building. With such a history, the architects prioritized health and safety, incorporating features such as wide staircases for emergency escapes.

This well-being focus has also extended to indoor air quality, and the company, which began designing its own offices in 2019, was already doing sensor research when COVID-19 hit. “The pandemic has accelerated many of these conversations,” said Cooper, who led the design of the office.

The company installed systems to track particulate matter, volatile organic compounds and carbon dioxide, Which This is a particularly important metric during a pandemic. Humans exhale carbon dioxide, so when people gather indoors, the gas levels can rise. High carbon dioxide levels may indicate inadequate ventilation in a space, which may also accumulate coronavirus particles if someone is infected with COVID-19. There is a possibility that

When the new office opened in 2021, SOM architect Amy Garlock was apprehensive about returning. Every time she had a cup of coffee, she checked the air quality dashboard by her office pantry. “It’s always been nice,” she said. “It makes me feel good about where I work.” She added, “It’s nice to have evidence of the invisible.”

The sensors are linked to the ventilation system and automatically react to changing conditions. “Every time we have a party like, ‘Oh, the CO2 levels are peaking,’ we get a ping,” says Air Quality Monitoring, an architect at SOM who helped evaluate and select his platform. To, Mr. Obinani of Oziakor said. When that happens, the ventilation system switches to a higher gear.

It is difficult to say whether the system prevented virus transmission during the pandemic. SOM also laid down other precautions, such as vaccine requirements and social distancing protocols.

“We sneeze a lot less in this new office,” Garlock said. But I wasn’t sure if it was because of the air quality. “Maybe fewer people are coming to work with a cold,” she speculated.

But the company always saw the system as a long-term investment with benefits beyond the pandemic. Studies show that good indoor air quality can reduce asthma symptoms, reduce absenteeism, and even improve cognitive function.

You may even save money. Obinani said the system would allow SOMs to get fresh air when and where it’s needed, rather than having to force ventilation all the time. So while the system would cost him $150,000 to purchase and install, and annual maintenance costs him $8,800, the company would cut energy costs by 25 percent over the next decade, saving nearly $250,000. I hope we can.

The system will also help the company respond to future air quality crises, even those unrelated to infectious diseases.

SOM was closely monitoring sensor readings on June 6 as smoke drifted over the city. During the day, the ventilation system pulled smoky air through high-quality filters to trap pollutants and keep indoor particulate matter readings low.

Still, Cooper said there was obvious anxiety in the office as conditions deteriorated outside the next day. Employees clustered by the windows, watching the darkening sky, huddled around sensor display screens, but they didn’t raise any alarms about the office atmosphere.

“It was comfortable inside,” Cooper said. “What was uncomfortable was looking out.”

Around 3:00 p.m., there was a beep. One of his sensors detected elevated levels of particulate matter. The team quickly determined that the sensor was near the fire escape, from which there was a distinct odor of smoke. Polluted outdoor air is clearly seeping into the stairwell, and the company warned employees not to use the stairwell.

The day played out differently at the company’s Washington, DC office. So when the ventilation system was enhanced, the level of particulate matter in the room increased. This suggests that buildings may be drawing in too much outdoor air or not filtering enough to trap particulate matter.

SOM realized that air quality was going in the wrong direction and notified the building manager, who changed the system settings to reduce the amount of contaminated air coming in from the outside and instead Increased recirculation of indoor air. “We can draw attention to that and make changes,” Cooper said. Particulate matter levels have been reduced.

The pandemic has prompted other companies to consider using sensors as well. Accounting firm Deloitte has introduced air quality monitors to its 2021 and 2022 international conferences, hoping to reassure attendees worried about the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus.

Chicago real estate firm Sterling Bay is expanding indoor air quality monitoring to all properties and is experimenting with using thermal sensors to monitor building occupancy. Buildings without such systems are essentially “blindfolded,” says Patrick Biesti, managing director of engineering at the company.

This approach has limitations. Carbon dioxide sensors do not directly measure levels of airborne pathogens, but only provide a rough proxy for infection risk. “There are many situations where even low CO2 levels can increase the risk of infection,” said Angela Eichelbosch, an environmental health scientist at Canada’s National Center for Environmental Health Cooperation. For example, very high ventilation rates can keep carbon dioxide levels low in company cafeterias, but office workers who eat with infected colleagues can still get sick.

And installing sensors in more buildings can be challenging, especially since the interests of employers, workers, and building owners don’t always align.

“It’s not often the same agency that pays your utility bills, pays your salaries, or pays for your building,” says Andrew Percily, an indoor air quality expert at the National Academy of Sciences. Institute of Standards and Technology. “If I were the building owner, I would be asked to put all this money into the building. I can’t take it.Can I raise the rent? Well, that’s an interesting bargain.”

Wider implementation will likely require new standards, policies and incentives, such as mandatory air quality testing and tax credits for building owners who improve indoor air quality, experts said. ing.

Additionally, in many buildings, the underlying air handling infrastructure such as fans, filters, dampers and ducts is poorly maintained and investment in these basic technologies is required to improve indoor air quality. Added when needed. Dr. Eikelbosch said the sensor is a “screening tool” to alert you to possible indoor air problems. “And do other things to improve the space.”

The day after the sky turned orange, Cooper and Harris stood in front of an air quality display at SOM and discussed the data. They were baffled as to how the smoke had made its way into the office all night and why the air quality in the stairwell was particularly bad. As architects, they saw the office not only as their workplace, but also as a laboratory.

“We’re trying to figure out what we can learn from this to keep ourselves safe at this point,” Harris said. To make good decisions,” he said.

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