A report commissioned by the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has highlighted the crucial role played by building ventilation in reducing the risk of Covid-19 and other infections, but it misses some crucial practicalities, according to the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA).
The report, which was produced by the National Engineering Policy Centre (NEPC) – a group of 43 professional engineering organisations led by the Royal Academy of Engineering – revealed flaws in the design, management, and operation of buildings.
It advised Sir Patrick that, unless these flaws were addressed, they could disrupt the management of this and future pandemics, impose high financial and health costs on society, and constrain the UK’s ability to address other challenges including climate change.
However, BESA said the problem was that many buildings were designed in a way that made it very difficult and sometimes cost prohibitive to fit the systems needed to achieve adequate ventilation. It said the government should link its ambitions for climate change mitigation and sustainability to work on ventilation and overheating in buildings and consult with all parts of the engineering and construction sectors to get a joined-up solution.
“It is very positive that the government’s top scientist recognises the importance of raising standards of building ventilation to deal with this and future pandemics, but he is only getting part of the picture,” said the Association’s head of technical Graeme Fox.
“The knowledge of professional institutions is hugely valuable, but unless they align their theoretical expertise and design philosophies with industry practitioners who operate at the sharp end and know what it is achievable, we will not be able to deliver the solutions the country needs,” he added.
BESA said building designers needed to consider practical measures like allowing enough space in ceiling voids to add or improve mechanical ventilation systems. Enabling access for maintenance purposes, cleaning ventilation ductwork and fitting or renewing air filters were other crucial factors often overlooked during design and fit-out phases.
The Association also highlighted the recent report from the Climate Change Committee (CCC), which warned that many new buildings were being developed without adequate adaption measures, which means they would be prone to overheating as our climate warms up.
The CCC identified overheating in buildings as a major climate change risk and health emergency in 2016, but since then 570,000 new homes had been built without climate adaption measures and a further 1.5 million were due to be built in the next five years.
Fox said there were more than 2,500 heat-related deaths during the 2020 heatwave in England, which was higher than at any time since records began, and that the CCC expected heat related deaths to treble by 2050.
“The government needs to understand the concept of a sustainable built environment in the widest sense,” he said. “Sustainability is not just about carbon and energy saving, it is also about ensuring that the facilities we build and refurbish are able to sustain human activity in the long-term while also safeguarding health, well-being, and productivity.
“It is highly possible that a huge proportion of the homes and commercial buildings being designed now will no longer be inhabitable in a few years’ time because they are too difficult to cool and ventilate.”
BESA has recently released new technical guidance to help contractors deliver indoor air quality (IAQ) solutions to transform existing buildings into ‘safe havens’ for people including how to minimise the risk of transmitting diseases via airborne particulates.
“The vast majority of the work needed to create safe and healthy indoor spaces will be retrofit and so we need a strong focus on low cost, practical measures that can actually make a difference to people’s lives,” said Fox. “Professional institutions should not be expected to provide that kind of work on their own. This requires a joined-up approach from the whole construction and building engineering supply chain.”
The RAE report: ‘Infection Resilient Environments: Buildings that keep us healthy and safe’ called for the plugging of skills and knowledge gaps and criticised the lack of building management consistency in healthcare settings. It added that investment in research and development was needed to clarify acceptable minimum standards for ventilation to support regulation by Local Authorities and others.
“We welcome the report and agree with many of its findings, but it only goes so far,” said Fox. “We have a big job to do in defining what we mean by the skills required to tackle the major health threat to people posed by buildings that have been designed to trap heat in order to minimise energy use.
“If you design tight you have to ventilate right and, unfortunately, our members come across buildings that have locked in air quality and overheating problems on a daily basis. This also needs to be explained to government at the highest level so that investment can be targeted in the right areas.”