The Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) is supporting a campaign led by an international group of scientists and engineers to have current building ventilation regulations completely rewritten.
The 40-strong group of leading experts and academics condemned the current state of indoor air quality (IAQ) as a scandal comparable to the contaminated water supplies in 19th Century Britain that led to thousands of deaths.
In an article for the journal Science, the group lamented the UK’s lack of air hygiene regulations, which is in stark contrast with the strict public health controls imposed on food, sanitation and drinking water. They blamed the way buildings are designed, operated, and maintained for helping to spread disease, including Covid-19, and called for a “paradigm shift” in ventilation similar to the changes brought about almost 200 years ago in water sanitation.
An air quality certification system for public buildings, like the one used by the food industry, should be introduced, the group argued. They estimated that installing ventilation and filtration systems able to remove airborne pathogens would add just 1% to the construction costs of a typical building. This compares with the current global spend of at least $1 trillion a month on Covid-19 mitigation measures.
The Science paper’s lead author Professor Lidia Morawska from Queensland University of Technology in Australia, said: “For decades, the focus of architects and building engineers was on thermal comfort, odour control, perceived air quality, initial investment cost, energy use, and other performance issues, while infection control was neglected.”
Cath Noakes, Professor of Environmental Engineering for Buildings at the University of Leeds, and a member of the government’s SAGE advisory group added that improving ventilation to reduce exposure to airborne pathogens would bring other benefits beyond transmission control, including improved productivity and wellbeing.
“Over the years, we have neglected the role that the air circulating inside a building plays in the way germs and viruses may spread between people. The pandemic has exposed that deficiency in our understanding and the way we seek to make buildings safer to use,” she said.
BESA said the pandemic had created a “window of opportunity” to properly address all aspects of IAQ for the first time. It welcomed the intervention of the expert group and urged the UK government to put its weight behind a series of initiatives including a proposed new British Standard and revisions to building regulations.
“The pandemic has pointed the spotlight at ventilation, and we must not miss this opportunity to address, once and for all, the long-term problems caused by poor IAQ in thousands of buildings up and down the country,” said BESA’s head of technical Graeme Fox.
He welcomed the news that the British Standards Institute (BSI) had decided to fast track the creation of BS 40101 for Building Performance Evaluation saying this would give added weight to IAQ measures proposed by the Association and other parties advising the BSI.
“The new Standard and the current review of Part F of the Building Regulations are big platforms we can use to enshrine high standards of ventilation and air filtration. However, it is crucial that we set ambitious targets to control the full range of airborne contaminants that affect health and wellbeing,” said Fox.
“We must also make sure we are in line with the latest worldwide thinking including updated World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance because whatever standards we agree now will be applied for many years to come,” added Fox.
The WHO has announced that it will be updating its air quality guidance at the end of June and the European Union is also expected to set tougher targets shortly. BESA added that any measures proposed should be relevant to conditions inside buildings.
“The government’s primary focus tends to be on outdoor pollution, but IAQ is a very different challenge and can often be many times worse than the conditions outside the building,” explained Fox.
“Our members repeatedly encounter the serious problems caused by poor IAQ and have good practical experience of what it takes to fix it. We have a duty to turn buildings into ‘safe havens’ that use good engineering methods to protect people from all airborne contaminants so they can enjoy better health and wellbeing.”
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