Breathing Easy on the Job: Why Good Indoor Air Quality Is Vital and How to Improve It in Your Workplace

COVID-19 has changed so much about the way we think about our health. A newfound awareness of our bodies — and the air we breathe in and out of them — is here to stay.

On average, humans breathe in over ten thousand liters of air each day. Compare that with the volume of liquid or food we consume (both typically less than ten liters daily), and it goes to show just how important the quality of our air should be. But to date, indoor air quality has been woefully underprioritized in the building industries, according to Dr. Tommy Zakrzewski, HKS’ Director of Building Engineering Physics, an air quality expert and long-time advocate of sustainable, high-performance design.

“The most important thing for our survival is the thing we have cared the least about,” he said.

But the pandemic is changing that.

In 2020, when we learned that the novel coronavirus spread through air molecules, many people stayed home to work. To prevent becoming infected, they donned facemasks and practiced social distancing. Now, as people begin to return to their workplaces and COVID restrictions lift, employees are entering back into surroundings over which they have far less control.

Those who do control the spaces where we work — building developers, owners and operators — now see air quality as a major indicator of how safe a space is or could be, according to Zakrzewski and HKS Senior Design Researcher Dr. Casey Lindberg. The challenge owners face, they say, is understanding exactly how something invisible like air becomes unhealthy and how they can improve its quality in a space filled with people.

One place to start is by limiting harmful particulates and air molecules that can transmit disease or unwanted contaminants. And according to Lindberg and Zakrzewski, who frequently advise clients on how to make their workplaces healthier and more efficient, the basic scientific solution is fairly simple: more air.

“More air is better. It’s almost on the same level as the historically used mantra ‘the solution to pollution is dilution’,” Zakrzewski said, noting that circulating more air through a space can “decrease the risk and probability of pathogen transmission or propagation.”

Solutions for Improving Air Quality

Unlike offices of decades past that were built to contain a high volume of workers with little regard for their well-being, the post-COVID office will need to be one that has access to higher volumes of natural air. Prioritizing the relationship between interior and exterior environments should be a key design strategy to provide that additional air, Lindberg says.

 “Your space should protect you from the most extreme elements, but it shouldn’t box you in from all the beneficial things that an environment has to offer,” he said, adding that outside air, especially in the United States, is typically of demonstrably better quality than indoor air.

Your space should protect you from the most extreme elements, but it shouldn’t box you in from all the beneficial things that an environment has to offer.

In addition to opening windows, which Zakrzewski says is “the simplest thing we can do” to bring more outside air in, he and Lindberg recommend a host of other systematic changes that HKS has been incorporating to help building owners increase the volume of fresh, healthy air in workplaces for over 20 years. MERV 13 filters that screen out contaminants at higher rates than standard code compliant MERV 6 or 8 filters, for example, can be easily incorporated into modern HVAC systems. But one of the best solutions, they say, is to work with designers to incorporate a Dedicated Outdoor Air System (DOAS), which separates conditioned indoor air from outside air via decoupled fans, allowing for 100% outside air to circulate at the flip of a switch.

People that elected to have DOAS installed prior to COVID reaped the benefits last year when air quality came to the forefront. “Buildings that had this special box were able to continuously provide the best outside air volumes consistently, while others struggled because their systems weren’t as adaptable,” Zakrzewski said.

At the HKS Chicago office, Dr. Tommy Zakrzewski describes the components of our ‘Living Lab’ — a workplace proven to enhance employee health and well-being with sustainable, high-performance design.

Zakrzewski and Lindberg have seen how DOAS have economic benefits, too, as they can significantly reduce building operating costs and limit the need for recommissioning projects to input more sustainable, healthier air systems in the event of future pandemics or other air quality crises.

“The people that have a DOAS system invested in resiliency,” Lindberg said.  “It should continue to pay off as well because people are now generally more aware of the importance of air quality. They may even have more of a demand to know the metrics of the air they are breathing.”

Data at the Forefront

HKS Director of Commercial Interiors Kate Davis designs with a foundational belief that a workplace should be the healthiest possible environment for people to carry out their jobs. Like Lindberg, she has also witnessed a surge of employers and employees who desire more information about the air they breathe.

“Not only do people want to understand that where they’re going is going to make them healthier, they want proof. They want visible, transparent, meaningful data,” she said, adding that improving air quality and will be even more crucial for employees who contracted COVID because of the long-term respiratory effects they may experience.

Not only do people want to understand that where they’re going is going to make them healthier, they want proof.

A good metric for determining air quality — and one that can be easily measured and displayed on digital monitors — is the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in a space. CO2 serves as an indicator of how much air has been breathed and what the likelihood of illness transmission could be. Monitoring CO2 can be particularly useful to keep employees informed about the relative health of the air at work.

HKS’ Research and Design Green teams leverage a variety of tools to help clients assess, track and improve CO2 levels and other factors that impact air quality. From using a kit of CO2 sensors Lindberg calls “Lab in a Bag” and a Space Ventilation Assessment tool to the mindful MATERIALS library, which we started in 2014, and our broad range of design services, HKS can cost-effectively adapt workplaces including offices, schools, hospitals and airports.

“We can assess the air quality and the risks associated with the current operation and design approach. From air quality analytics and measurement related to health and wellness, we can come up with strategies to manage costs from a retrofit perspective,” Zakrzewski said. “We help manage a process to go from a minimally code compliant building to something that’s higher performing at the lowest environmental footprint and at the lowest cost.”

The HKS Research team can monitor and track air quality and other environmental conditions with a readily deployable “Lab in a Bag” set up including sensors that provide real-time metrics through a dashboard as shown here.

A Shift in Workplace Priorities

Zakrzewski, Lindbergh and Davis are committed to shifting attention more toward wellness in workplace design and air quality is now front and center in their advocacy. Over the last year, they have noticed developers, owners and operators embrace sustainability and wellness goals as a top priority. High-performing spaces that go above code minimums to provide better air quality and display environmental quality indicators to occupants in real-time are going to become more prevalent, they predict.

Designing for employee health isn’t just a responsible thing to do; we believe it will attract and retain employees returning to the office after a long period of remote work. Davis explains: “people now understand air quality at a more visceral, personal level,” so commercial office design strategies informed by the WELL Building Standard will be become more attractive.

“We’re hearing that the WELL Health-Safety Rating is something clients value because it helps get people back into the buildings,” Davis said of the program, which promotes operational policies, protocols and contingency plans that promote health and wellness.

Back in 2017 — long before the pandemic heightened awareness of indoor air quality — HKS designed a new downtown Chicago office, putting our teams’ well-being first.

Setting out to create a “Living Lab,” HKS designers, researchers and sustainability experts including Davis and Zakrzewski envisioned the new office a testing ground for LEED and WELL-inspired strategies. On a tight budget and with space constraints, they implemented numerous sustainability and wellness-oriented design solutions to improve employees’ day-to-day wellness as well as evaluation systems that allow all office users to keep track of environmental metrics. Throughout the last four years, and especially during 2020, it became evident that a dedication to wellness was the right choice, as environmental conditions and employee satisfaction significantly improved compared with the prior office.

Situated inside The National, a 1907 landmark building, the office proves how workplaces can offer the highest air quality levels, even if they’re located in historic structures. To ensure our employees could breathe easier and healthier, the team focused on healthy air throughout the design phase, working to adapt the space to maximize flow and circulation of people as well as the air itself. They opted to install a displacement ventilation system and selected low VOC furniture and materials to minimize off-gassing of potentially harmful chemicals. Conducting pre- and post-occupancy tests, the team verified that air quality improved by 27 percent from their prior space. A total of 91 percent of employees reported satisfaction with the air quality in their new workplace.

A project symbolizing how good design can improve health — one that the International WELL Building Institute has commended one of the best renovations incorporating WELL strategies — the Chicago office is one of many recent HKS projects that prioritizes good air quality. In Dallas, HALL Arts Residences includes advanced filtration and DOAS systems, contributing to healthy air for both building employees and condominium residents. At UC San Diego’s North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood, university staff and students benefit from extensive natural ventilation and many other high-performance design strategies. Currently, members of HKS’ Aviation practice are conducting research with the hopes of developing a concept prototype for a “breathable” airport focused on clean air and human health.

Operable windows and doors are the best way to increase air circulation in a space. At UCSD North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood, common areas include large operable walls, which are good for multifunctional uses as well as ventilation.

Davis sees projects that focus on air quality and other metrics that support health as fundamental to HKS’ mission. “If as a firm we believe in the power of sustainability and research-informed design, then those should be the drivers of whatever solutions we create,” Davis said.

And as she once again begins to collaborate in person with other HKS employees in the Chicago office, Davis is now confident that the space she helped design will not only protect her from illness, but even make her healthier.

“I know for a fact that our air quality in the office is better than my air quality at home. I know that because of the system we put in and because we’re monitoring that system,” she said.

Healthier People, Healthier Business

Improving and tracking air quality levels doesn’t just add up to a numbers game that helps limit infection — research shows these tactics have been proven to enhance people’s ability to do their jobs, too.

“When the CO2 levels go up, you’re not able to think and solve complex problems as readily,” said Lindberg, whose academic work has focused on the intersection of psychology, architecture and wellness

To justify improving air quality in a workplace, Lindberg, Zakrzewski and Davis all point to a commonly known fact: an employer’s the biggest expense and most important asset is people. If employees are unwell or not able to think clearly because indoor air quality is bad, companies will not only lose talent, but they’ll also lose out on long-term capital savings.

When discussing the importance of design and air quality with clients, Lindberg often refers to the suite of Harvard and SUNY-led COGFx studies, the first of which was published in 2015 and linked higher cognition with green office environments. Lindberg says that such studies not only prove employee performance excels when building owners take steps to enhance air quality, but that costs can be “completely out of scale” with what they’d ultimately pay for utility bills. The long-term return on investments for sustainable systems and design, he added, can yield at least 10 (and perhaps up to 100) times the benefit if measured in terms of the human capital.

Our pandemic-induced awareness of air quality has led to a potential sea change in how employers and building owners assess the value of space. Real estate valuations and the number of desks per square foot a space can accommodate — these long-held metrics for workplace performance and efficiency have been misguided because they haven’t taken employee well-being into consideration, Davis says.

“The answer was never that the workplace was a container, the answer was that the workplace should be a service to make the human component as effective as it can possibly be,” she said. “That’s a statement that applies to any space that people inhabit.”

As we enter an era where employees have more choices about where they can work, it’s no longer an option to ignore how workplace environments impact health and wellness. Designing for better indoor air quality is more than an essential business move — it’s a health mandate.