Green Spotlight on Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)

Cornerstone speaks to Bob Kobet, AIA

Q:  What factors contribute to poor IAQ in buildings?

A:  There are several factors that can contribute to poor IAQ, and like buildings themselves, the causes are often complex and interrelated.  Generally, I believe the causes can be grouped into two categories—interior and exterior pollutants.  Exterior pollutants such as transportation and industrial exhaust emissions and seasonal pollens are brought into buildings by infiltration or poorly designed ventilation systems.  Interior pollutants include any source that off-gases or releases harmful materials such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), organic compounds found in solvents, paints, finishes, and common cleaning materials; microflora, like mold and mildew; and particulates from common house dust to friable asbestos.

Q:  What chronic and acute health problems can result, and which populations are most susceptible?

A:  Once again, the problems are as varied as the sources and the building occupants that experience them.  The broad categories are allergic reactions, or ongoing symptoms exhibited through very common reactions to such things as dust and pollen, and chemical reactions to such incitants as VOCs and other chemicals used in processes actually going on inside buildings.  The number of people reporting allergies and other environmental maladies is growing.  It is widely believed that the startling increase in asthma is due to poor conditions in the built environment.  Anyone can suffer from illness triggered from built environmental influences.  It is a matter of “dose and duration.”  Young children with immune systems that are not fully developed and the elderly, who may be susceptible because of a weakened immune system, are the most vulnerable.  But the phrases “Sick Building Syndrome” and “Environmental Illness” did not become part of our vocabulary as a result of only the very young or very old.  It was first associated with office buildings.

Q.    When did this situation first become recognized and do you believe it’s worsening?

A:  I credit Dr. Theron Randolf, a Chicago physician, with first recognizing and then writing about the influence of the built environment on our general health and well-being.  In the late 1940s and early 1950s Dr. Randolf began noticing patterns of illness in his patients that could be traced back to their home environments and everyday behaviors.  One of the first associations he made was people reacting to their Christmas trees, an item otherwise not typically found in the home.  When the trees were removed, the symptoms disappeared.  Dr. Randolf then extrapolated this to a wide variety of other influences in the built environment.

I’m not sure I would say that environmental illness is worsening.  If anything, we are becoming more aware of the problem, and I do believe we are seeing a statistical increase in reported cases of built environmental illness.  We now know that previous cases have been misdiagnosed.  Also, we are now becoming aware of the growing number of individuals who are exhibiting symptoms because they have been in sick buildings for a long time and have finally become ill.

Q.    What liability issues are involved for building owners and managers?

A:  Unfortunately, litigation is driving a lot of what is happening in this field.  Many of us have been to IAQ conferences where entire tracks were dedicated to this subject.  I was not surprised to find several lawyers attending a building commissioning session at a conference I attended recently.  Toxic torts are one of the fastest growing categories of suits in the building industry, and the implications of that affect everyone in the building professions.  On the other hand, I am equally pleased to learn of the initiatives insurance companies are forming to work toward making our buildings better places to live.

Q.    What would you recommend to those concerned about this problem?

A:  The best thing any of us can do is to be more educated about the issues involved.  The good news is, we have a growing awareness of what causes environmental illness and an attendant increase in information and expertise about what to do about it.  Obviously, in existing buildings, diagnosing a current condition is important.  In new construction, it is largely a matter of avoidance.  Scores of sources have chronicled what catastrophes sick buildings can be, both in terms of human health and straight-forward economic losses.  At the same time, the returns on healthy, comfortable places to live and work are making the transition from the anecdotal to the clinically verifiable.  I don’t think the research is going to surprise anyone.  All of us in the green building field are obliged to continually educate and inform our colleagues and clients.  That is my simple recommendation.

Robert J. Kobet, AIA, is the Director of Green Building Services for Conservation Consultants, Inc. (CCI).  He holds a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Cincinnati and a Master of Science in Sustainable Systems from Slippery Rock University, a degree he was instrumental in creating.  He is an adjunct faculty member at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture and the owner of Energy Design Associates, a consulting practice which specializes in ecologically sound design for the chemically sensitive.  

Favorite houseplants that can remove volatile chemicals from the air include the Rubber Plant, Dracaena “Janet Craig,” English Ivy, Dwarf Date Palm, and Ficus Alii.
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