Facility leaders share their thoughts on what to expect this year and beyond
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I speak to a lot of facility managers across the country in a variety of facility types. One subject that keeps coming up in conversation is indoor environmental quality (IEQ), which describes ways to provide interior environments that are healthy and safe and meet the needs of building occupants. Initially, I had thought the driver of these conversations was lingering concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.
I was wrong. Our conversations instead have been dominated by concerns about having effective operations and maintenance programs, balancing desirable outcomes for occupants with the constraints of current facilities and the specific issue of the impact of recent wildfires on facilities practices.
One thing maintenance and engineering managers know is that the way they operate facilities and maintain facility systems affects occupant health, comfort and cognitive function. In other words, facilities’ indoor environments affect how occupants feel.
Why do managers care? One key reason is productivity. As those with care over facilities, managers affect the most expensive things in buildings: occupants. Various models indicate that employee salaries account for around 92 percent of organizational spending. While managers don’t control that 92 percent, they certainly influence it.
What is IEQ, what are managers learning, and why does it matter? IEQ encompasses indoor air quality (IAQ), thermal comfort, acoustic comfort and visual comfort. All these aspects affect the way occupants feel and perceive workspaces, whether they know it or not.
IAQ covers airborne particulates, odors and contaminants. Managers' go-to practices when addressing IAQ problems have been eliminating or treating sources of contamination, providing enough outside air ventilation to continuously refresh the interior environment and filtering the air.
These basic approaches have not changed. What has changed is thoughts on the amount of outside air to bring in and the amount of filtration to apply. The discussion is driven by an increasing understanding of the impacts interior environments have on occupant health and wellness.
With few exceptions, more outside air is better. Research indicates that increasing outside air levels above current minimum levels results in improved health and cognitive function. The air should be appropriately filtered, of course.
The minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating system indicates an air filter’s effectiveness at filtering particulate matter. In many institutional and commercial facilities, unless there is a special requirement, filtration levels are often in the MERV 8 range to filter out dust, pollen and mold spores.
During the pandemic, increasing filtration levels to MERV 13 or its equivalent became a recommendation. At that level, virus particulates could be captured. It turns out MERV 13 filters are also very effective at filtering fine inhalable particulate matter 2.5 microns and smaller (PM2.5). This is where wildfire smoke fits in, something many facility managers did not have to deal with until last year. Research has shown negative health impacts related to high concentrations of PM2.5 – another argument for providing improved filtration in facilities.
Managers quickly run into a twofold problem:
Managers can address the first issue with knowledgeable engineering support. The second issue, increased cost, is something managers have to work through by weighing costs and benefits. Operational costs will increase, but health and cognitive function – elements that improve productivity – would be expected to improve, and that is worth something.
For facility managers facing challenges from wildfire smoke, ASHRAE’s Guideline 44P, Protecting Building Occupants from Smoke During Wildfire and Prescribed Burn Events, provides a good framework for developing a response and action plan, including management of outside air and filtration.
The most common facilities complaints are too-hot and too-cold calls. Humans can adapt to a variety of temperatures but are remarkably sensitive about interior environments. When occupants are not comfortable, they are distracted and less productive. It’s an important issue, and front-line technicians spend a lot of time responding to these calls – investigating, adjusting setpoints, fixing equipment, re-balancing systems and relocating people and sensors.
In thinking about the response to thermal comfort, managers need to consider the definition of comfort. This is where they can look to ASHRAE Standard 55, Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy. Thermal comfort is not solely a matter of temperature. The way people feel is also influenced by humidity, air speed and, not surprisingly, activity, as well as the clothes occupants are wearing. From the ASHRAE Standard 55 perspective, it’s a comfort “win” if at least 80 percent of occupants are comfortable.
Temperature settings are an ongoing debate and need to balance energy efficiency needs against thermal comfort desires. Temperature setpoints for facilities are typically between 68 degrees and 76 degrees, depending on the organization, its policies and goals and the occupants.
High and low humidity also can affect the way people feel. When the air is too humid, there is an increased risk of mold and mildew growth, and the air might feel sticky. When indoor air is too dry, people experience dry skin and the general effects of dehydration more quickly.
Below 40 percent relative humidity, the risk of susceptibility to infection increases, according to the study, Wellbuilt for Wellbeing: Controlling Relative Humidity in the Workplace Matters for Our Health. Besides affecting occupants, humidity and fluctuations in humidity can affect building components, such as woodwork and works of art.
Managers don’t often think about air speed unless a fan is blowing in their vicinity. In facilities, designers take great care to avoid high-velocity air blowing directly on people. Noticeable airflow can be uncomfortable. Telltale signs of air speed issues are occupant complaints about draftiness and air noise.
Occupant activity assumptions are made at the design stage of a facility and its systems. If occupant levels change in a space – for example, if an office area has been converted to a workout room – the existing system needs to be adjusted and possibly supplemented to account for the increased levels of heat and carbon dioxide produced by occupants.
Clothing levels are an interesting issue for the facilities community. Managers don’t have control over what occupants wear, and clothing can very much influence their sense of comfort. If managers maintain the 80 percent comfort level in facilities, they might find themselves talking with occupants about layering their clothing.
A certain amount of background sound – the hum of a copier in standby mode, the gentle sound of an HVAC system, the light chatter of voices in conversation – is expected and even welcome. Most of us do not notice these things. But when the sound becomes annoying and distracting – people talking loudly, loud machinery, music played too loudly or expected privacy compromised – it becomes noise, and it adds to daily stress.
When managers prioritize human comfort and productivity, they cannot ignore noise issues. Their measures might include employing noise mitigation in the form of sound-masking systems, adding soundproofing materials and talking with occupants about behavioral changes they might need to make. The reduced distraction can help occupants focus, reduce stress and improve productivity.
Visual comfort refers to having the right level of lighting for the task, lack of glare and access to daylight and views. The Illuminating Engineering Society provides guidance on lighting levels for interior environments based on activities. For example, visually intensive tasks demand higher lighting levels, while less intensive tasks need less.
From a facilities perspective, managers need to balance the need to provide appropriate lighting levels with energy efficiency and visual comfort. Fortunately, lighting technologies continue to improve in their efficiency, and lighting levels are straightforward to check.
Glare is a visual comfort issue caused by excessive light reflection, which can happen when there is too much light. Glare can cause eye strain for occupants, affecting their ability to concentrate.
Access to daylight and views also can help occupants’ demeanor and thought processes. Where possible, managers should consider space furniture that doesn’t block daylight and creates common spaces that allow visual access to the outdoors.
Interior environments have a profound impact on occupant health, comfort and cognitive function. As those responsible for managing the built environment, managers have a significant influence on the quality of the environment they oversee. By attending to and improving IEQ, managers contribute to their core responsibility: the productivity of occupants and organizations.
Laurie Gilmer is vice president and COO of Facility Engineering Associates. Gilmer is the chair of IFMA’s Global Board of Directors, serves as IFMA's liaison to the Building Industry Decarbonization Collaborative and serves on the national visiting committee of Building Efficiency for a Sustainable Tomorrow Center.