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UL Predicts Sensor Technology Will Focus Awareness of Indoor Air Quality

IAQ white paper 1

May 22, 2015

Organizations like LEED in the United States and BREEAM in Europe disrupted the market roughly 20 years ago by establishing new sustainability criteria for buildings to meet. The work of these organizations forever changed the way people think about structural design and construction, and ultimately paved the way for the new focus on building performance that is emerging in the industry today.

UL’s previous Chief Economist Erin Grossi recently developed a study of the track record of green building in order to determine which elements of the movement have been generating consistent returns on investment for building owners, operators and investors. The findings of the study indicate that while some value has been established by architects and developers through enhanced design practices, exceedingly more value was added when owners and investors started focusing more on the actual performance of building systems on the operations side to ensure they can truly deliver enhanced energy management, water conservation and improved indoor air quality.

Grossi predicts this acute focus on building performance achievement taking shape in the marketplace will be catalyzed by new building technologies emerging as part of the "smart building" movement, including sensors, monitors, and dashboards integrated with the building systems. These technologies will empower people to be increasingly attuned to the ways their buildings are managing natural resources and providing occupants clean and healthy air to breathe.

While the market has been slowly adopting these technologies to date, the emergence of the large tech-savvy Millennial Generation, combined with the increasing retirements of existing operations personnel, will push technology to the forefront of the building industry. While it was not surprising that energy and water savings were two areas most building constituents claimed as benefits of the sustainability movement, the fact that indoor air quality emerged as an area driving returns on investment for investors of all kinds was a less obvious finding of the study.

Grossi’s latest white paper, “Indoor Air Quality: A Sleeping Giant That Sensors Will Awaken,” focuses in on the indoor air quality elements of the larger economic study. Grossi states that many building constituents in the United States, in particular, are not paying enough attention to air quality, partly because the most substantial human health benefits of investing in this area are not as easy to measure and track over time.

That said, it certainly makes economic sense for building owners (who are also building occupants) or for tenants to find ways to measure air quality and track resulting impacts on personnel. Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate management company, has pointed out that a 1 percent impact on productivity is significantly bigger than energy savings. The asset protection benefits associated with good indoor air quality, especially protecting buildings from potentially disastrous mold and moisture issues, are resonant with most building owners and investors.

The increase in awareness of mold as a cause of human health complications has catalyzed an uptick in related lawsuits in the United States in a way that is reminiscent of asbestos cases. One only needs to search the internet to realize that the number of personal injury and property damage lawsuits brought by tenants against building owners and entities in the construction process (including claims for defective construction and exposure to toxic mold) is burgeoning. The number of pending building mold cases around the United States is now more than 14,000, and with juries awarding multi-million dollar settlements for them, building owners and their attorneys are actively looking for ways to mitigate mold and moisture problems.

Another major cause of poor indoor air is the growing amounts of chemicals in buildings, which can emanate from technology hardware, construction materials, furniture and other furnishings, and cleaning products. Chemical exposure in indoor environments is actually exacerbated by all of the efforts to conserve energy by sealing building envelopes, which traps the harmful chemicals inside in the process, often causing indoor air to be between 2 percent and 5 percent more polluted than outdoor air.

The scientific community is also falling increasingly behind in studying chemical exposure and its impacts on human health. UL's scientists estimate that there are 80,000 chemicals in international commerce today, with only 3 percent having been fully evaluated for health impacts. About 50 new chemical compounds are found in products every month on average.

Grossi states it is clear that a tipping point is coming in the next 5-10 years, when maintaining low-performing buildings will no longer be economically viable.

UL’s white paper on this subject and accompanying video reflects on the importance of the scientific work being done on indoor air quality measurement and detection in order to make the right connections to human health.