Design professionals know the impact indoor air quality can have on the cognitive and physical health of building occupants, yet design and engineering disciplines often work in silos to try to achieve healthy indoor air quality. A collaborative approach can result in sustainable buildings and healthier indoor air quality that can meet or exceed design benchmarks.
Collaborative Design Process
Utilizing an integrated approach that brings all team members to the table at the start of the planning and design process, design teams can better define project goals, share knowledge, and strategize. Owner expectations and requirements of indoor air quality can be determined, guiding the team in material selection and ventilation control design. While ASHRAE, LEED, and WELL share some goals, they have unique requirements that may conflict with each other, emphasizing the importance of communication across disciplines to coordinate standards and develop strategies that achieve the targeted benchmarks.
Through this collaboration, materials, furniture and finishes selection, and installation can work in tandem with the design of mechanical and air-filtration systems to reduce off-gassing and other airborne contaminants. Products declared Red List–free by the International Living Future Institute establish a good starting point for healthy materials and finishes. Beyond the Red List, material selection will depend on project type, from hospitals to commercial properties, community centers to workplaces.
The best mechanical systems for a space also vary depending on use, and mechanical engineers and interior designers can work together to determine a comprehensive approach. In a high-activity space like a gym, outdoor-air ventilation may be increased beyond typical levels to ensure occupant comfort and offset smells from rubber athletic flooring. A daycare center will require durable, low-maintenance materials and an air-filtration system to reduce airborne containments and odors that could impact children’s health.
Measuring Results to Improve IAQ
Post-occupancy testing can verify that the targeted benchmarks for healthy indoor quality have been met. Testing should utilize the methodologies outlined by standards like WELL, which requires post-occupancy testing for certification.
If certain levels are below expectations, remedial steps can be taken, including a flush-out to clear the air from residual construction contaminants, conducting third-party commissioning to verify all systems are operating as intended, identifying and replacing potentially non-compliant products, or adjusting ventilation and filtration systems to better address the indoor environment. The remediation strategy is best designed through an interdisciplinary approach to diagnose the situation and determine next steps.
Ultimately, when a project’s mechanical engineer is working alongside the interior designer to establish the targeted levels for indoor air quality and the design strategy to achieve those goals, indoor air quality—along with the owner and user experience—can all be improved.
Ariane Laxo is an interior designer at HGA Architects and Engineers, where she co-chairs the firm’s sustainability council and represents HGA in the AIA National Resilience Initiative.
Corinne Wichser is a mechanical engineer at HGA Architects and Engineers, where she specializes in sustainable operations in existing buildings through retro-commissioning, energy audits, energy models, LEED facilitation, WELL certification, and sustainable planning. She is a member of HGA’s Sustainability Council.