Protecting and Optimizing Indoor Air Quality in the GCC thanks to Green Building Rating Systems

Indoor air quality is not something we often think about but, with the disproportionately high amount of time we spend indoors,  it is something that influences every facet of our lives. Indoor air quality is no laughing matter and around the world, it has different consequences ranging from mild symptoms, such as headaches, to the profoundly severe, such as death.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), of the 4.3 million people who die annually from exposure to household air pollutants, most perish from stroke (34%), ischaemic heart disease (26%), and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (22%). Pneumonia and lung cancer also account for 12% and 6% of deaths, respectively. Worst of all, it is mostly women and children that are affected by indoor air quality.

Struggling in the GCC

Recent studies have shown that in countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) indoor air quality is lagging behind the requisite standards. A 2018 study revealed that it is one of the leading health issues for the region.

“Indoor air pollution is one of the human health threat problems in the GCC countries. In these countries, due to unfavorable meteorological conditions, such as elevated ambient temperature, high relative humidity, and natural events such as dust storms, people spend a substantial amount of their time in indoor environments,” read the report.

The study cited the production of physical and biological aerosols from air conditioners, cooking activities, and overcrowding as common causes of low-quality indoor air. It found that the combination of infiltration of outdoor sources, as well as various indoor sources, made it so that GCC residents were highly exposed to indoor air pollutants.

“It was surprising to me when I came to know that levels of air pollution are 2-5x higher indoors than outdoors, we normally tend to associate air pollution with cars, factories and outdoor emissions in general. However, there are many sources of indoor air pollutants that, if not given the required attention, can cause symptoms ranging from headaches, nausea, and fatigue to asthma and cancer. A substantial body of literature has proved the relation of poor indoor air quality to impaired learning, reduced productivity, and Sick Building Syndrome,” said Tasneem Bakri, Operations Coordinator, Alpin Limited.

Within our control thanks to building rating systems

You might think that indoor air quality is out of our control. After all, it likely depends on the outdoor air quality of a region. But the truth is there are plenty of things buildings can do to address indoor air quality and green building rating systems help to do exactly that.

The LEED system, for instance, has several design and operation considerations included in its guidelines to improve, measure and monitor indoor air quality. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, there are strict criteria both for new constructions and existing structures.

For new constructions, there is the Indoor air quality assessment credit in the LEED v4 Building Design and Construction (BD+C) rating system. The Enhanced indoor air quality strategies credit offers options for carbon dioxide monitoring while a pilot credit, called Performance-based indoor air quality design and assessment, offers an alternative compliance path to the Minimum indoor air quality performance prerequisite.

Meanwhile, in existing buildings, the Performance-based indoor air assessment, a pilot developed over the course of one year by 15 air quality experts, encompasses baseline testing and continual improvement of indoor air quality. Finally, there is also the option to use a beta of LEED v4.1 for Existing Buildings.

LEED is not the only green building certification that covers air quality. The Global Sustainability Assessment System (GSAS) building rating system also targets indoor air quality in depth. In fact, a 2017 study, rated the system against six indoor environment quality factors and found that indoor air quality was one of the most covered factors.

“GSAS applies credits relating to indoor air quality such as Thermal Comfort, Natural Ventilation, Low VOC materials, Airborne contaminants, and Mechanical Ventilation. But it is just one of the green buildings standards to monitor and promote healthy indoor air quality. All of the systems, in general, do so in one way or another. After all, they would be incomplete without those standards,” said Owais Yousef, Sustainability Engineer at Alpin Limited.

Indeed, Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) International also has an indoor air quality component. The certification states that it aims to “recognize and encourage a healthy internal environment through the specification and installation of appropriate ventilation, equipment, and finishes.” It does so through minimizing sources of air pollution (4 credits) and adaptability – the potential for natural ventilation (1 credit).

Meanwhile, the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB) states that its “aim is to ensure that indoor air is of sufficient quality not to adversely affect users’ health and well-being.”DGNB measures indoor air quality through two criteria: Volatile organic compounds and Ventilation rate.

The WELL building certification,the world’s first building standard that focuses exclusively on human health and wellness, establishes “requirements in buildings that promote clean air and reduce or minimize the sources of indoor air pollution” in its AIR component. The certification looked even further into air quality in its new strategies for fighting COVID-19.

Its approach consists of reducing indoor air quality issues by ensuring adequate ventilation and filtration are provided. The system has a five-step method that includes: ventilation effectiveness, enhanced ventilation, operable windows, air filtration, and microbe and mold control.

In Saudi Arabia, the regional building standard Mostadam aims to “enhance the air quality of occupied spaces by designing air-tight spaces and conducting air quality testing to confirm acceptable air pollutant levels.” A specialist contractor is brought in to conduct IAQ testing for occupied spaces after construction ends and external doors for all buildings are weather-stripped.

In the UAE, Abu Dhabi’s Quality and Conformity Council (QCC) has been working for years to improve air quality through Estidama. According to a 2015 interview with the organization, the “QCC operates a number product certification schemes which directly support the Estidama sustainable building initiative by identifying products used in construction with low-impact on indoor air quality.”

These include everything from paints to flooring and furniture which are ideal for indoor use. These safe products certified by the QCC can be recognized by the Abu Dhabi Trustmark for Environmental Performance logo. When used in Estidama projects, they provide credits towards the building rating system.

Finally, it should be noted that Estidama, just like LEED and the Dubai Green Building Regulations, has requirements for the supply of fresh air as per the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) standards, indicating that these systems may have different paths but they all share one goal: optimizing indoor air quality.

Before COVID-19

Indeed, all these building rating systems had conceived of their indoor air quality systems long before COVID-19 but the virus has raised the stakes even further and has brought the issue firmly into the public eye. When inside, there is not much space for viruses to circulate, increasing the chances that they will go on to survive for a long time on surfaces and/or infect others directly.

The WELL certification’s main body, the International WELL Building Institute, went so far as to create a special WELL standard for the COVID-19 era. It is called the WELL Health-Safety Rating and you can read about it here: WELL Health-Safety Rating

Just like the regular WELL and all other green building rating systems, it puts a big importance on air. After all, shouldn’t we all?

To find out more about all these great green building rating systems that protect and optimize our indoor air quality read here: Green Building Consultant

Written by Loukia Papadopoulos