Pandemic and bushfires are testament to critical role of indoor air quality

07 August 2020

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AUSTRALIA – Last summer was one that few Canberrans will ever forget.

In January, Parliament House’s 81-metre flagpole was barely visible in a haze of smoke, as a city proud of its fresh air and clear blue skies choked on the worst air quality in the world. Day after day, Canberra’s hazardous air quality rated below the megacities of India and China.

Despite the blistering heat, Canberrans were urged to stay inside. Sealed in their homes, unable to switch on evaporative cooling, people tacked wet sheets to doorways. Air purifiers, electric fans and P2 masks ran off the hardware store shelves. People began checking their air quality app more frequently than the weather.

Buildings with better quality air filtration systems – like offices and shopping centres – became places of respite from the smoke. A technical risk management consultancy with expertise in indoor air quality, CETEC, found premium offices reduced outdoor bushfire smoke contaminants by up to 90 per cent.

And then along came COVID-19. While it is still too early to know whether high performing buildings can limit the spread of coronavirus, some experts suggest that buildings with high levels of ventilation, filtration and operable windows may reduce the risk.

While the future remains uncertain, both crises have demonstrated that healthy buildings play a central role in a healthy world.

Strategic thinking and productivity bolstered

For more than two decades, researchers have drawn a clear link between good indoor environment quality (IEQ), and the health and productivity of people.

One of the best studies, undertaken by Harvard University in 2016, found office environments with the highest air quality boosted strategic thinking by 31 per cent, focused activity by 38 per cent and crisis response by a massive 73 per cent.

Importantly, people who participated in the study reported 30 per cent fewer ‘sick building’ symptoms such as headaches, sore throats, dry eyes and running noses – in the office environment with the best air quality.

ISPT owns seven large buildings tenanted by the Australian Public Service in Canberra. Each of these boasts a coveted six-star rating for indoor environment quality – the highest available under the National Australian Built Environment Rating System, or NABERS.

One of these is 7 London Circuit. While the building’s stunning glass atrium entrance gives a strong first impression, some of its hidden features are just as important. Each light-filled level offers floor to ceiling windows, flexible floorplates and well-regulated air-systems – hallmarks of a healthy building.

Why customer comfort is key

Carlos Flores, NABERS Director, says the Indoor Environment rating uses the latest measurement technology to assess not just air quality, but thermal and acoustic comfort, lighting, layout and cleaning practices too.

“A 6-star rating indicates a world class building. ISPT is undoubtedly ahead of the curve when it comes to delivering exceptional indoor environments for its customers,” Flores says.

“ISPT is undoubtedly ahead of the curve when it comes to delivering exceptional indoor environments for its customers.” Carlos Flores, Director, NABERS

ISPT owns more buildings with 6-star NABERS Indoor Environment ratings than any other asset owner in the country, explains Alicia Maynard, ISPT’s General Manager of Sustainability & Technical Services.

“This achievement represents years of proactive investment in the best building management systems, as well as improving the performance of our buildings with the help of experts, and most importantly, listening to our customers,” Maynard says.

“We achieved our first NABERS IE rating back in 2012. We recognised that customer comfort was an essential measure of building performance. Having our buildings independently verified has helped us set benchmarks and then identify areas where we can improve.”

As a result, ISPT now has an average NABERS Indoor Environment rating of 5.3-stars across a portfolio of 26 properties – well above the national 4.2-star average.

Great space is timeless

But ISPT’s team won’t rest on their laurels.

Live dash boards and instantaneous feedback enhance the dialogue between people working in ISPT buildings and those managing them, Maynard explains. This “rich data” gathered is fundamental to continuous improvement.

“We are always looking at new ways to drive innovation, piloting new technologies and initiatives to gain real-time insights and feedback to improve building conditions,” she says.

“Some office trends, like ping pong tables, bean bag chairs and sleep pods, will come and go. But the hard lessons of 2020 mean employers will be looking for offices that prioritise health – and that’s a trend that is here to stay,” Maynard concludes.

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