Misconceptions about the purpose of indoor air quality audits in the industry

Indoor Air Cartoon Journal, January 2021, Volume 4, #114

COVID-19 has taught many people, especially building owners, occupants, and professionals, and government agencies, how important it is to take the delivery of healthy buildings seriously the way, if not more, they take the delivery of building energy efficiency. However, to move forward, they should not be afraid to understand the problems associated with healthy building delivery and use the understanding to mitigate or prevent the problems.

A problem is a gap between the expected building healthy performance level and the current performance level, which is below in performance. This kind of problem is called caused problem. Another type of problem is a created problem. Created problem is the gap between a newly aspired or targeted higher building healthy performance level and the current performance which meets the expected healthy buildings performance level. Created problem is born from the need for continuous improvement.

After a problem is defined, there is a need to identify the cause of the problem in order to provide a solution to eliminate it or reduce its effects so that the problem it caused will cease to exist or extent reduced.

The reduction and elimination of the cause of the problem leading to suitable and reliable reduction or elimination of the performance gap (problem) is the usefulness that will be provided to all stakeholders involved. The maximisation of usefulness derive from invested resources increases value delivered to all stakeholders involved. The higher the maximisation is, the higher the value-oriented productivity delivered. 

Unfortunately, many hazards and vulnerabilities associated with buildings inhibit the usage of invested resources (e.g., facility managers and invested time, money, materials, instruments, and equipment) from delivering usefulness (healthy buildings) to occupants. Examples of such hazards are indoor air pollutants. The more the presence or potential presence of indoor air pollutants and their sources and the harm they cause and vulnerabilities of building occupants, the higher the risk of not achieving the high value-oriented productivity.

Thus, resources should be directed towards eliminating the causes of indoor air pollutants and occupants’ vulnerability as much as possible to increase the possibility of delivering more usefulness and increase value delivery. Measures that can provide information and knowledge on the appropriate use of resources to deliver more usefulness are the key to delivering value to all stakeholders involved. Such a measure is indoor air quality (IAQ) audits.

However, many building owners and professionals in the industry have relegated the motivation to conduct IAQ audits to just fulfilling a criterion of green building certification. As a result, many professionals are only interested in measuring IAQ parameters and comparing them to the necessary standards. They fail to realise that it also includes investigating and getting relevant and reliable information about the vulnerability and the resulting risk involved. Then use the collected information to make diagnosis, prognosis, and recommendation that will facilitate remediation to reduce hazards, vulnerability, and risk in the present and the future.

This will ensure improved and healthy indoor air quality and environment, occupants’ health, wellbeing, and productivity. So, when, how, how often, and why should IAQ audits be conducted? Who and what should do it?

The building and construction authority (BCA) green mark for existing non-residential buildings suggested that IAQ audits should be conducted every three years. Is it appropriate to wait every three years before conducting IAQ audits? Do the three years contravene the purpose of conducting an IAQ audits?

IAQ audits prioritise identifying and eliminating existing or potential sources of indoor air pollutants as much as possible because there will not be any exposure if there is no source. No exposure means no implications on human health, wellbeing, and work. Death due to indoor air pollutants will also not occur.

Will IAQ audits conducted every three years or those conducted with the primary purpose of only comparing measured IAQ parameters to standards with little or no effort to understand the root cause of indoor air pollutants provide answers to the following questions at the appropriate time to avert risk?

How well are the sources of indoor air pollutants in the indoor environment known? How often do the sources that could be due to nature or humans become present in the indoor environment? How often do the sources emit air pollutants to the indoor environment? What is the strength of emissions of the sources and toxicities of emitted air pollutants?

The answer the questions is No. IAQ audits conducted every 3 years will not provide the information and knowledge required to avert risk on time. Neither would IAQ audits conducted with the primary purpose of comparing to standards efficiently and effectively avert risk.

Aside from knowing the hazards (air pollutants) in the indoor environment, the manner many professionals practice IAQ audits or wait for every 3 years before conducting an IAQ audits makes building occupants vulnerable to experiencing harm that could be caused by indoor air pollutants not avoided on time. The vulnerabilities include exposure, physiology, psychology, social, and economic. Opportunities to understand the nature and extent of these vulnerabilities of building occupants are usually missed.

The lack of IAQ audits or IAQ audits that fail to understand the age of air in the indoor environment and air movement would not provide the information required to limit the generation of new air pollutants in the indoor air due to indoor air chemistry or change in the dynamic or constituents of indoor air pollutants that could make the air pollutants more toxic.

As a result, building occupants become vulnerable to being exposed to toxic air pollutants in every microenvironment the air pollutants are transported to in the building. Building occupants will also be vulnerable due to exposure to indoor air pollutants if building systems, such as air-conditioning systems and their sub-systems, are not well managed or operated.

The risk of suffering from indoor air pollutants may continue to increase if the physiology, psychology, and social vulnerabilities of building occupants do not motivate the need to conduct IAQ audits. Poor physiology of occupants could aid the absorbed dose of toxic air pollutants to easily alter body structures and functions to cause health problems, or even death if care is not taken.

People who have a mental disorder, e.g., depression, may find their condition deteriorate if exposed to indoor air pollutants, especially those originating from outdoor environment, of certain concentrations and toxicity. IAQ audits that were not conducted appropriately or IAQ audits delayed to every 3 years would miss the opportunity to understand the building occupants’ psychological vulnerability. IAQ audits practices that ignore the behaviour, or cultural practices of occupants will miss the opportunity to know how social vulnerability could increase the risk of adverse effects caused by indoor air pollutants.

The reality of high expenses involved in conducting IAQ audits to efficiently and effectively avert risk reduces the frequency in which IAQ audits are conducted in the industry. If economic vulnerability is limited or eliminated, the assessment of physiology, psychology, and social vulnerabilities, which are often not addressed in IAQ audits, will be addressed. IAQ audits could also be conducted more often.

If ensuring more usefulness, i.e., efficient and effective risk assessment, prevention and mitigation, and management, corresponding or more than invested resources can be achieved, more building owners might be willing to regularly conduct IAQ audits. This is because of the high IAQ audits value being delivered to them. When is value delivered? Value will be delivered if diagnosis, prognosis, and remediation accuracy are maximised from invested resources for IAQ audits.

The assumption here is that many building owners, professionals and occupants, and government agencies would perceive healthy indoor air as useful to human health, work, and life, due to the awareness brought by the COVID-19 experience.

If usefulness delivered is below invested resources, the extent of wastes delivery will increase while value decreases. An absolute waste will occur if invested resources and associated costs deliver no usefulness.

Waste delivery will continue to rise if activities in the IAQ audits process that are not necessary and not leading to usefulness in line with IAQ audits’ purpose are not identified and eliminated from the process. Examples of wastes in IAQ audits are all activities and invested resources leading to wrong diagnosis, prognosis, and remediation of IAQ problems. The wastes will be repeated until the diagnosis, prognosis, and remediation are done correctly, assuming quality and safety achievement are taken seriously.

Activities that are necessary but not at the point where usefulness is delivered should be identified, simplify and replaced with digital solutions to enhance the process and maximised usefulness derived from invested resources. Examples of such activities are carrying instruments and equipment to different sampling locations to measure indoor air pollutants concentrations. Another example is deploying several people, time, and money to checking the accuracy of IAQ audits data and information collected.

Digital technologies, robots, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and augmented realities are examples of digital solutions that can be adopted to enhance the activities where usefulness is delivered or optimise necessary activities that are not at the points where IAQ audits usefulness is delivered. Streamlining of process to eliminate wastes can potentially save a lot of money for an industry and stakeholders involved. This can also be true for IAQ audits. More emphasis should also be given to continuous improvement efforts.

Building owners, professionals and occupants and government agencies will be motivated to know more about IAQ audits, do it properly and do it more often if the economic implication of conducting IAQ audits is significantly reduced without compromising the delivered usefulness or get more usefulness from invested resources.

So, when should IAQ audits be conducted? Daily, weekly, monthly, two times a year, yearly, two years, or every three years? I will argue that conducting IAQ audits every 3 years is inappropriate for it to be meaningful, and the decision on when to conduct IAQ audits should not be prescriptive based. It should be performance-based.

Research efforts should strive towards the development of digital solutions and their adoption for IAQ audits in an effort to deliver healthy buildings. However, all stakeholders involved should note the limitation of digital solutions. They cannot solve problems. They can only enhance the process of solving problems. Efforts should also be invested in creating a system that aid exposure of problems in the IAQ audits process and have the tools for solving the problems. Lean thinking can help create such a system. The lean thinking goal is value delivery and wastes elimination. Lean thinking alone cannot deliver high value-oriented productivity either. Lean thinking should be integrated with digital solutions adoption.

Integrating lean thinking with digital solutions will enhance the process of exposing and solving the exposed problems to deliver value to all stakeholders involved. Such benefits from research efforts could one day make it convenient and comfortable to conduct IAQ audits on a daily basis. I rest my case.

Do you want to learn more about indoor air quality audits? Read Cheong and Lau (2003), Wet et al. (2015), and Yu and Kim (2011) papers.

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