Cushman & Wakefield- Sponsor of the Pulse Blog

Is Climate Change Making Office Air Worse?

Jul 2, 2024
From our Sustainability Thought Leader Partner, JLL. Climate change is worsening office air quality, exacerbated by rising temperatures and increasing pollution in urban areas. Poor air quality affects employee health and productivity, prompting businesses to invest in better ventilation, filtration systems, and air quality monitoring. Companies are balancing the need for clean indoor air with sustainability goals, using advanced HVAC technologies and mixed-mode ventilation. Investing in air quality improvements can yield significant economic benefits, including increased productivity and reduced absenteeism.

Companies responding to health concerns are focused on improving indoor air quality

A greater awareness of having fresh, clean air is a clear pandemic legacy.

Nine out of ten people and businesses think air quality in the workplace is important, a recent Dyson survey showed.

Yet in 2024, a quarter of the U.S. population will be exposed to air deemed unhealthy, according to analysis from environmental research group First Street. In the European Union, environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius called air pollution the region’s “number one environmental health problem.”

Part of the problem is pulling fresh air into buildings. As the planet gets hotter, air pollution in already congested cities gets worse.

As a result, the OECD estimates companies across the globe already lose more than a billion work days every year due to air pollution.

“People have been aware of so called ‘sick building syndrome’ for years, along with the afternoon slump that comes with increased CO2,” says Terry Rose, HVAC Service Director for Integral’s Cooling Technologies division. “But with more people back in the office again, a bigger focus on workplace health and wellbeing is bringing ventilation and filtration systems back into the spotlight.”

Improving office air quality, particularly in summer and during extreme climate events, could deliver huge economy-wide impacts in cities like Singapore, Sydney and Barcelona, a CBI Economics 2023 study found.

Take Los Angeles, where better office air could boost productivity by almost 8%, translating to an additional $55 billion of economic output, according to CBI. Purifying London’s indoor pollution could provide an additional $21,731 of output per worker.

Not just climate change

It’s not just germs and external pollution firms are worried about. Sources of volatile toxins can also include office cleaning products and air fresheners, as well as fit-out materials, such as paint, glue and carpets.

This has companies turning to BMS systems and indoor air quality (IAQ) sensors in a bid to monitor nasties and protect the health of employees.

While costs are a concern, the financial benefits can be significant. Spending $40 per person can reap annual productivity benefits of up to $7,000 per person, according to studies carried out by Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Solving the sustainability conundrum

The adoption of technology is key, as firms struggle to balance their cleaner indoor air quality goals with greener net zero carbon legislation.

“Unnecessarily frequent air exchange increases HVAC fan use and energy consumption,” says Dr Matthew Marson, Managing Director EMEA for JLLT Advisory. “It means firms are getting smarter about joining up live IAQ data with existing systems controls, writing PropTech rules for appropriate actions to take based on actual conditions.”

It can even mean something as simple as “mixed mode ventilation,” which means manually opening a window on occasions where pollution levels and building design allow. The White Collar Factory building in London uses a traffic light system to indicate when opening a window is a sensible option.

“Sealed windows were previously the norm, but in pursuit of low operational carbon, more developments are starting to factor in adaptive design, combining operable windows with sensors and mechanical ventilation,” Marson says.

Rose says going back to basics to stop airborne pollutants at source should be the first port of call.

“Investing in HVAC and ductwork maintenance, and regular filter changes, equates to investment in your people,” he says. “It’s also a cost-effective way to keep equipment energy efficient and ensure optimal ventilation, air exchange, humidity control and temperature.”

HEPA and UV filters that catch particulates and sterilize the air respectively, are also being used to purify the office environment.

With changes being made to benchmarks, such as those from the British Council of Offices, and the prospect of IAQ legislation on the horizon, many firms are actively pursuing accreditations such as WELL, RESET and Air Rated.

Meanwhile, advances in IoT mean domestic IAQ sensors have become more commonplace, creating higher expectations of workplace air standards, akin to those long established for tap water.

“With the understanding of health outcomes at an all-time high, we could in future see people taking legal action against their employers for poor workplace air quality,” says Marson.

CoreNet Global