Is your indoor air quality solution threatening building occupants’ comfort and convenience?

Indoor Air Cartoon Journal, October 2022, Volume 5, #135

[Cite as: Fadeyi MO (2022). Is your indoor air quality solution threatening building occupants’ comfort and convenience? Indoor Air Cartoon Journal, October 2022, Volume 5, #135.]


The purpose of indoor air quality (IAQ) solutions is to reduce building occupants’ discomfort and inconvenience. However, many years ago, IAQ solutions, specifically air cleaners, available in the market did the opposite. The inability of the air cleaners to serve their purpose led to people not using them the way they should. The prevalent problem led to unhealthy living and work performance indoors. People were spending money to buy air cleaners but not getting their required usefulness. Thus, low IAQ value delivery became the order of the day. The poor problem-solving culture due to industry practices and how students in the education system were trained did not give hope for a brighter future. The journey a young man in the education system went through in the hope of having a chance to provide building occupants with healthy living, improved work performance, and high IAQ value delivery is the subject of this short fiction story.

Dr. Abraham Green was welcomed with loud applause to the stage at the Grace Watson Prize to give a speech in honour of Professor Marcelo Osbourne Feel, who was about to receive the Grace Watson Prize. Grace Watson was an educator who dedicated her life to making a lifetime impact on students and society through education. The Grace Watson Prize involves a trophy, a medal, and a five million US dollars cash prize.

The prestigious award was named in her honour after her death many decades ago to recognise educators who had made a lifetime impact on students and society. “It is a great pleasure for me to be here to talk about someone who made a tremendous impact on my life,” Dr. Green made this open statement. Dr. Green went on to make his speech.

I grew up in an era when the education system emphasised model answers, students were spoon-fed information, and students hated self-learning. We were in an education system where students were neither eager to ask questions nor encouraged to ask. We were terrified to ask questions that could be useful to our learning journey in a module and self-learning. When tasked with an innovation project, we were unconsciously trained to focus on the solution developed instead of trying to solve a problem.

The training focus was on something other than researching to define the problem, understanding the root cause of the problem, and letting the cause of the problem inform the solution developed to have a better chance of solving the problem or reducing or eliminating the cause of the problem. We would jump straight to a solution when given a problem without respecting the problem-solving process.

We would develop a solution to a problem we did not understand. We developed solutions that looked very good, learnt how to say the right things we knew the assessors wanted to hear. However, we were neither interested nor knew whether our developed solution had the potential to reduce or eradicate the cause of the problem we were meant to solve.

Although the importance of critical thinking and reflection was emphasised in the education system, how we were or wanted to be trained and assessed did not encourage the critical thinking and reflection needed to be educated or solve problems.

We students cried to be spoon-fed information in a lecture. Many of us believed our professors were solely responsible for making us learn everything required in a module. Even when professors made an effort to make us ask questions, we refused to cooperate. We genuinely did not see the importance of asking questions or being encouraged to ask questions for self-learning and problem-solving.

An environment that facilitates questioning needed for effective self-learning and problem-solving was alien to students. We were used to a classroom environment that did not encourage students to question what they were being taught respectfully and accept information given to us. Many students graduate from such an education system with a poor ability to ask questions needed to aid critical thinking, reflection, effective communication, gain technical knowledge and apply the knowledge to solve problems in a value-oriented productive manner.

The poor trend in the characteristic of graduates was not evident because the qualities were not appreciated in industry practice even though people in the industry said they wanted them. Do not get me wrong. This does not mean graduates from such an education system do not know how to develop a solution. The question is whether the developed solution solves the defined problem in a value-oriented productive manner for all stakeholders involved. I would have graduated with such poor quality if I had not met Professor Marcelo Osbourne Feel.

I first met Professor Marcelo Osbourne Feel in year 2 of my university education when I first took one of his modules. The module turned out to be an eye-opener for many of us. For the first time in my education, I was introduced to a learning journey where students were consciously encouraged and felt comfortable to embrace critical thinking and reflection and ask questions during and after lectures. The manners in which he conducted lectures and tutorials, the assignments and assessments were designed ensured we embraced the critical thinking, reflection, and questioning needed for an effective learning journey, self-learning, and problem-solving in the innovation project he designed for our learning.

I want to emphasise how his design and innovation administration developed problem-solving skills, which were later useful for solving indoor air quality problems many people know me for in the industry. I will share this later. But before I share that, you all need to appreciate how Professor Feel was responsible for my achievements in effectively solving IAQ solving. Professor Feel emphasised the importance of adopting a performance-based approach over a prescriptive-based approach in problem-solving. He emphasised this as this was a major issue that compromised effective problem-solving in the industry at that time. Let me share some of the things Professor Feel taught us about performance-based and prescriptive-based approaches.

The process of solving a problem is the performance-based approach. The problem-solving process involves defining a problem and understanding whose problem is to be solved, why the problem should be solved, the determinants of the success of solving the problem, and who will be impacted by the problem to be solved.

It involves the identification of causes or contributing factors to the defined problem. The performance-based approach requires understanding the causes or contributing factors to inform the ideation of possible solutions that can be used to reduce or eliminate the causes to solve the defined problem. Understanding how and why the causes or contributing factors existed will inform how possible solutions are identified, applied, tested, and updated for effectiveness or value delivery. The adoption of empathy in each of the stages of the problem-solving process will increase the effectiveness of adopting a performance-based approach.

The prescriptive-based approach is the adoption of specific instructions, standards, guidelines, or recommendations of how a thing is believed to be done to achieve the required outcome or performance. Note that recommended standards, statutory guidelines, or specific instructions on how to do things should be part of the solutions or steps to be considered to eliminate or reduce the causes or contributing factors to a defined problem in a performance-based approach.

The way the recommended standards, statutory guidelines, or specific instructions are adopted will have to be reconsidered if they cause more problems. The performance-based approach requires a prescriptive approach not to be adopted blindly. That is, a prescriptive-based approach should be considered a subset of a performance-based approach to solving a problem effectively. The focus of a performance-based approach is ensuring a problem is solved to deliver the highest possible value. There are several possible ways of achieving this, especially if the problem is complex.

One of the major benefits of the performance-based approach is that it pays due attention to holistic value delivery. For example, in the context of a building, it helps to reduce scenarios in which value delivered from solving a problem associated with one building performance mandate would compromise value delivery associated with other building performance mandates to maximise holistic value delivery experienced by building occupants. A performance-based approach mentality breads continuous improvement and lifelong learning.

The prescription of a solution to a problem or a problem that is not well understood is a practice that is associated with a prescriptive-based approach. Such practice increases the risk of low value delivery to stakeholders, especially the end user of the solution to a problem. This is especially true for a complex problem. A performance-based approach, if adopted appropriately, as described earlier, will reduce the risk of low-value delivery to stakeholders, especially the end user, of the solution to a complex problem. The following traits are needed in a performance-based approach to make it successful: Objectivity, measurement clarity, communication, innovation, decision-making, and professionalism.

The sources of waste in the problem-solving process should be eliminated or reduced to make performance-based approach increase value delivery, i.e., maximise usefulness derived from invested resources. Professor Feel made us read an article to understand the sources of waste that should be reduced or eliminated. A process containing many waste sources will lead to hesitation to invest the required resources into the process to execute the performance-based approach traits needed to develop a solution for solving a problem effectively to increase value delivery.

After training us in the classroom, Professor Feel made us work on an innovation project with a healthcare facility in the country to ensure we had hands-on or real-life experience in problem-solving. Professor Feel tasked us to identify potential human behaviour leading to more electricity (energy) or water consumption in the chosen healthcare facility. We, as a group, were required to focus on electricity or water consumption problem.

Professor Feel emphasises the need to engage with the healthcare facility staff to define the water or electricity (energy) consumption problem in any section of the chosen facility before making efforts to understand the causes of the problem. Professor Feel said there could be many possible causes of the problem, but he wants us to focus on causes related to human behaviour for the project. He said we should ask three fundamental questions related to human behaviour. What human behaviour is wasting water or electricity consumption? How is human behaviour wasting water or electricity consumption? Why is human behaviour wasting water or electricity consumption?

Based on the explanation he gave us in class, the Why (reason) for human behaviour wasting water or electricity consumption will be fundamentally driven by the need for comfort, convenience, and awareness level. Humans want to ensure the comfort and convenience, and awareness they sacrifice in a problem-solving process is minimised as much as possible. In contrast, they want the comfort, convenience, and awareness they gained from solving the problem to be maximised as much as possible.

We were then to use the knowledge of the causes of human behaviour to inform the solution (prototype) developed to reduce or eliminate the causes of human behaviour that led to more electricity or water consumption. The developed solution should also not compromise the purpose of consuming electricity or water. Such a compromise is tantamount to causing discomfort to humans.

The assumption is that if the need, which also includes the purpose of consumption, of humans is better addressed, humans could be influenced to save more electricity or water. As this was a project in a module, there were time, expertise, and financial limitations. Each group was provided some funding, though. The level of expectation was kept minimal.

We were not expected to develop a market-ready or ready-to-be-installed prototype or solution. We were required to develop a prototype that can be demonstrated to show its potential to reduce or eliminate the causes of human behaviour leading to more electricity or water consumption without compromising the purpose of the consumption. The prototype (solution) development to a stage in which it is ready to be installed or used in real-life scenarios for months to determine its impact on water or electricity consumption was outside the project’s scope.

I later took more modules taught by Professor Feel. At the end of each of his modules, students’ critical thinking, reflection and communication skills, and technical knowledge would be better than when they had just started the module.

A few years later, I was watching an old video recording of Professor Feel’s lecture one Saturday to get inspiration for a possible research area for my MSc (by research) thesis when my younger brother came to sit beside me to watch the lecture video with me. He was in senior high school at that time.

The lecture video was about indoor air quality. After watching the video, my brother, who was in a chit-chat mood, asked me several questions about IAQ. I was obliged to answer him because such interactions made me learn better. Professor Feel’s lecture and my sharing with my brother made him interested in the air quality of his indoor environment is healthy.

A few days later, my brother told me a story about an air cleaner placed in his classroom to improve indoor air quality. The story went on like this. My brother asked his classmate, “Bro! Why did you turn off the air cleaner? The air cleaner is needed to clean the air so that air pollutants won’t cause discomfort and inconvenience that will compromise our learning.” His friend replied, “Akon, Don’t you think our learning was already compromised by the air cleaner’s noise, which caused discomfort and inconvenience? I hope you can feel me, my friend.” My brother’s name is Akon.

After leaving the classroom to go home in the afternoon, my brother’s friend, Shaun, made interesting comments. “It is a relief to be out of that classroom of horror! Hmmm, at least for today. Of what use is an air cleaner, air purifier, or air condition system solution that can effectively reduce exposure to harmful indoor air pollutants but is not used by building occupants because the solution poses an immediate threat to them?” Shaun further said, “When designing or deciding on IAQ solutions, it is very important to consider how the solutions can infringe on other building performance mandates that can cause an immediate threat to humans.”

These comments from Shaun made my brother share some of the things I taught about IAQ with him. My brother said, Hmmm! Many people only see poor IAQ as an immediate threat during COVID-19 and made immediate inventions to improve the IAQ condition to reduce its threat. The harmful effects of poor IAQ are often occurring but are not immediately evident.” I believe you all remember COVID-19, which happened more than two decades ago.

My brother further told his friend, “I learnt about IAQ from my brother. He also said poor IAQ’s consequences could range from mild to catastrophic. Because many people may not see or be aware of poor IAQ, outside COVID-19, as an immediate threat, it is important to develop IAQ solutions that people will be motivated to use because the solutions are not posing an immediate threat to them.” He went on to share more about his story with me. Listening to my brother, I realised he had learnt interesting points about IAQ from me and Professor Feel’s lecture on IAQ.

When I heard my brother’s story, I thought of what Professor Feel once told us in one of his lectures. Professor Feel said, “when creating solutions to solve the end users’ problem, pay attention to the process the end users must go through to use the provided to solve their problems.” Upon learning about the conversations between my brother and his friend, I got an idea of what I should do for my MSc thesis. The next Monday, I went to Professor Feel to share my thesis topic idea with him.

To cut a long story short, after several discussions and email exchanges, we decided on my MSc (by research) thesis plan. We bought several air cleaners of the same model used in my brother’s school. The same air cleaner model was also used in many schools in the district.

We tested an air cleaner’s performance in a field environmental chamber laboratory in the presence of human subjects. Three rounds of experiments were conducted for a scenario with an air cleaner and without an air cleaner. This means six experimental scenarios. Each of the six experiments was conducted two times to accommodate all the subjects involved. Due to the size limitation, the laboratory could not accommodate all the subjects at once. Thus, a total of 12 experiments were conducted.

Ozone and limonene were deliberately generated in the laboratory. Concentrations of ozone, limonene, and particles (secondary organic aerosols) generated from the ozone-limonene chemistry were measured. Sound levels in the laboratory were also measured. Other environmental parameters were kept constant and measured to ensure they were constant.

We examined the impact of an air cleaner on subjects’ concentration on a task, cognitive ability, comfort, and work accuracy in tasks given. In each experiment, saliva was taken from the subject. The saliva was processed to measure the amount of α-amylase (stress indicator) secreted from the subjects during each experimental scenario. An institutional review board (IRB) approval was secured before we conducted the research.

For all the experimental scenarios with an air cleaner, the ozone, limonene, and particle concentrations in the indoor air were significantly lower than in scenarios without the air cleaners. The sound levels measured in the laboratory for the experiments with an air cleaner in operation were significantly higher than sound levels measured during the experiments when an air cleaner was not in operation.

The subjects’ percentage of dissatisfaction with perceived air quality was significantly lower for the air cleaner scenarios than experimental scenarios without the air cleaner in operation. The subjects’ perceived air quality acceptability ratings were mostly around the clearly acceptable point on the rating scale for experimental scenarios with an air cleaner. While subjects’ ratings were mostly around the clearly unacceptable point on the rating scale for experimental scenarios without an air cleaner.

The experimental scenarios with an air cleaner significantly lowered the perceived sensory irritations (eye, nose, and throat irritations), odour intensity, flu-like symptoms, and chest tightness than experimental scenarios without an air cleaner.

However, subjects’ perceived headache was significantly higher in scenarios with an air cleaner than in scenarios without an air cleaner. Furthermore, the cognitive ability, perceived comfort level, perceived convenience level, and work accuracy of the subjects in the experiments worsened significantly for the air cleaner scenarios than the scenarios without an air cleaner. The secretion of α-amylase (stress indicator) was found to be significantly higher with an air cleaner in operation than when an air cleaner was not in operation.

We found that the high sound level of the air cleaners when in operation explains the observed worsened perceptual responses, stress level, and work performance. Under normal conditions, using an air cleaner should have made the subjects’ perceptual responses and stress levels healthy and improved work performance better than when an air cleaner was not used.

In conclusion, while using an air cleaner improved IAQ condition and perceived air quality, it failed to effectively fulfill the primary purpose of adopting it due to its sound level. The primary purpose of an air cleaner is to deliver the comfort and convenience required by healthy indoor air.

In addition to the experimental studies, we also conducted field studies which included measurement of indoor air pollutants concentrations and survey administration to understand the frequency of air cleaner usage in the classrooms and the perceived comfort, convenience, and performance of students and teachers. The field studies involved the distribution of air cleaners to selected schools. Interestingly, the conclusion in the experimental studies was similar to the conclusion from the field studies.

The field and experimental studies conducted in the classrooms helped define the problem of increasing occupants’ discomfort and inconvenience complaints and decreased work performance levels when air cleaners were in operation. The field studies helped to answer questions related to human behaviour, as taught by Professor Feel.

In our field studies, we understood what kind of classroom occupants’ behaviour is involved in using the air cleaners. We understood how the air cleaners are used. We understood why occupants used the air cleaners in the manner they were used. On the why question, we understood the occupants were striving for comfort, convenience, and awareness of how the air cleaners’ value delivery to them can be enhanced.

After completing my MSc (by research) degree, I proceeded to do a Ph.D. under Professor Feel’s supervision. The knowledge and understanding of the problem defined and its causes provided direction for my Ph.D. The knowledge and understanding were used to inform the development of an air cleaner that delivers healthy indoor air without compromising other building performance such as acoustic, thermal, spatial comfort, and building integrity (energy consumption and maintenance-related issues).

The materials chosen did not reflect light that could cause visual discomfort. We also paid attention to the aesthetic of the air cleaner to give visual comfort when placed in classrooms. The prototype air cleaners we developed with funding from the government were distributed to selected schools’ classrooms for several months to collect data similar to those collected during my MSc.

The experimental protocol adopted during my MSc was also adopted, except that there was more experiment during my Ph.D. In my Ph.D. studies, experiments were conducted for scenarios of a noisy air cleaner model, a non-noisy air cleaner model we developed during my Ph.D., and no air cleaner usage.

To cut a long story short, students and teachers were happy to use the non-noisy air cleaner model we developed as they posed little or no threat to their comfort and convenience. The air cleaner model we developed also did not emit pollutants into the air. We also targeted making the developed air cleaner model to be cost-friendly. I will not go into the details of the development and investigation here.

The main conclusion from my Ph.D. studies was that our developed non-noisy air cleaner model significantly improved IAQ conditions and perceived air quality. It also significantly improved perceptual responses, work performance, and stress levels than the noisy air cleaner model available in the market and the non-usage of an air cleaner. Thus, the primary purpose of an air cleaner to deliver the comfort and convenience required from healthy indoor air was achieved.

The development of an air cleaner model from my Ph.D. studies that made an immediate impact was largely due to Professor Feel’s guidance and wisdom and the initiative I took to engage him in the discussion, learn from him, and take self-learning seriously. Professor Feel is a major advocate of self-learning. Professor Feel said one needs to be interested or motivated enough to want to be educated to benefit from education. Professor Feel defined education as the art of inspiring a person, people, and oneself to develop critical thinking, reflection, technical and communication skills, and knowledge required to be a self-learner(s).

After finishing my Ph.D., I suggested to Professor Feel that I would like to start a university spin-off company. The company’s focus was to use the problem-solving technique gained from Professor Feel, coupled with the innovation from my Ph.D., to help solve complex problems for sustainable building value delivery to all stakeholders involved in a problem.

Our company would also serve as a consultant to companies in the building delivery process, at the design, construction, and facility management stages, to help them increase the value delivery to themselves and their clients or consumers of the solutions they provided. There was a huge need for the expertise provided by our company. At that time, resources were being consumed at an alarming rate, with little usefulness provided by a solution derived from the invested resources.

The consumption of resources was celebrated but with little interest in whether the usefulness delivered from the invested resource was of the same or higher magnitude than the consumed resources. Many people in the industry needed to have the problem-solving philosophy Professor Feel provided to his students.

Unfortunately, there were many professionals with high technical capability but poor problem-solving philosophies. It was no surprise that the services provided by our company became popular and our profits increased tremendously because everyone in the industry realised what they had been missing and the root cause of the low value-oriented productivity delivery in the industry. Within a few years, our company stood on its own and was not associated with the university. We were very grateful for the university’s support and belief in us.

That was the beginning of the company I co-founded, in which I am the CEO and the largest shareholder. We now operate in more than 50 countries in the world. We have won hundreds of prestigious awards and recognitions locally and internationally. Despite many challenges we faced, our discipline in the effective adoption of a performance-based approach to problem-solving in the industry contributed significantly to our success, and we have Professor Feel to thank for that.

Our discipline is rooted in strict adherence to objectivity, measurement clarity, communication, innovation, decision-making, and professionalism. Professor Feel taught many of his students and me this. Our staff members are also expected to exhibit a high level of critical thinking, reflection, communication skills, and technical knowledge to make the discipline alive.

You can now see how Professor Feel, a co-founder and major shareholder in the company, has made a huge contribution to my life and educated me and many others to impact many lives and businesses. Thank you very much, Professor Feel. I have so many good things to say about Professor Feel, but I will stop here as time will not allow it. Without much further ado, I welcome Professor Feel to the stage to accept his award. Professor Feel, please.

There was a round of applause as Professor Feel went to the stage to receive his Grace Watson Prize trophy, medal, and five million US dollars cheque. Professor Feel gave five minutes thank you speech and received his award. There was also grand reception in honour of Professor Feel. With the permission of Professor Feel, Dr. Green also wrote a book in honour of him. The book was a huge success locally and internationally. The book benefited students, industry professionals, educators, and the public. The End!

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