The Fourth Metric: Indoor Air Quality and the Pittsburgh 2030 District

If you’re familiar with the Pittsburgh 2030 District, you can probably name the goals of the 2030 Challenge for Planning off the top of your head: 50% reductions (below baselines) for energy, water, and transportation emissions for existing buildings. But did you know that the Pittsburgh 2030 District has indoor air quality as a fourth metric?


Three identical 2030 Challenge goals are being pursued by Property Partners in all fifteen 2030 Districts in North America while each is also welcome to select a fourth objective focusing on an issue relevant to their region. Albuquerque, for example, is tracking waste reduction and Seattle is looking at ways to manage storm water. Pittsburgh, famously described by James Parton in an 1868 issue of The Atlantic Monthly as “hell with the lid taken off” due to industrial smoke, is targeting improvements in indoor air quality. Why should employers and property managers care? Better air quality has been proven to affect employee health, productivity, and, ultimately, a company’s bottom line.[1]

Baselines for energy, water, and transportation emissions have been relatively easy to come by. The energy baseline derives from the national 2003 Commercial Building Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS), while the others came from analysis of data provided by Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission’s Regional Travel Demand Model. But how do you measure indoor air quality (IAQ) in a way that can be replicated across our District’s current 482 participating buildings?

To answer that question, Green Building Alliance and the Pittsburgh 2030 District turned to our friends at the University of Pittsburgh’s Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation. Melissa Bilec, PhD; Bill Collinge, PhD; Harold Rickenbacker; and Vaclav Hasik have been hard at work on a pilot test incorporating a few Property Partner buildings and presented some of their research at the recent ACM BuildSys 2016 conference in Stanford, California.

Co2 Monitor. Photo credit: Claudio Costerni / flickr

A Co2 monitor helps measure indoor air quality. Photo credit: Claudio Costerni / flickr

Their paper points out that while the national average for PM2.5 emissions (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns – small enough to move into the upper respiratory track) produced during fuel combustion is 13.4%, in Allegheny County the percentage is 41.4% – due, in part, to older power generation facilities. They hypothesize that energy reductions achieved by Pittsburgh 2030 District participants will lead to improvements in outdoor air quality and, ultimately, improvements in indoor air quality as outdoor air infiltrates buildings.

The team used the Environmental Protection Agency’s Building Assessment Survey and Evaluation Study (BASE) as a starting point for establishing an air sampling protocol that includes four steps:

  1. An initial building and site visit;
  2. Selection of study areas and monitoring locations;
  3. 72-hour field monitoring; and
  4. Data synthesis, reporting, and a follow-up meeting to review key findings and recommendations with building representatives.

Several tools were used to sample the air at each pilot location. The Graywolf 3016 Handheld airborne particulate counter measured particulate matter in different sizes, while the Graywolf AdvancedSense Probe checked concentrations of total volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, relative humidity, ozone, temperature, and formaldehyde. The AethLab Micro-Aethalometer collected black carbon samples.

Although the advanced scientific instruments used for testing yielded a large amount of data and tremendous opportunities for improvement, organizations and individuals don’t have to wait to begin gathering their own sets of numbers. Consumer models of monitors for temperature, relative humidity, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter are all readily available – in fact, Allegheny County residents who want to measure particulate matter in their homes or at their desks can even borrow a meter from the library!

Results from the pilot tests are being analyzed and some locations are being retested. Indoor air quality is affected by a variety of circumstances, including building materials, building envelope, office equipment, cleaning practices, flooring type, human traffic, occupant density, proximity to vehicle traffic, and activities such as cooking and smoking. When testing IAQ in a building, it’s also important to consider when the metering is conducted. The team has already tested one location twice – once in the summer (cooling season) after a rain storm and once in the winter (heating season), resulting in very different PM2.5 level results.

Variables such as operable windows can also have a significant impact on data. While it’s nice to have fresh air in the office, if the outdoor air is of poor quality, it can actually be detrimental to let it into the building unfiltered. Some buildings, like the Center for Sustainable Landscapes at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, avoid this problem by alerting occupants when conditions are suitable to open windows.

The creation of the indoor air quality baseline for Pittsburgh 2030 District Partners is still in progress, along with the University of Pittsburgh’s efforts to correlate energy use reductions to improved outdoor and indoor air quality, but general recommendations are already available. Strategies for improving indoor air quality include:

  • Upgrading HVAC filters to a higher minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating;
  • Replacing filters seasonally;
  • Using HEPA filters on vacuums to limit resuspension of fine particles;
  • Purchasing no- or low-VOC cleaning products;
  • Cleaning mechanical equipment regularly; and
  • Selecting office equipment that off-gasses less ozone, VOCs, and particulates.

Interested in learning more about the Pittsburgh 2030 District’s progress toward achieving reduction goals in energy, water, and transportation emissions? Check out our 2015 Progress Report.


[1] Fisk, W., “Estimates of potential nationwide productivity and health benefits from better indoor environments: An update,” 2000. Indoor Air Quality Handbook.
Heschong, L., Wright, R. L., and Okura, S., “Daylighting Impacts on Human Performance in School,” 2002. Journal of the Illuminating Engineering Society, 31:2, pp. 21-25.
Tham, KW, HC Willem, SC Sekhar, DP Wyon, P Wargocki, PO Fanger, “Temperature and ventilation effects on the work performance of office workers (study of a call center in the tropics),” 2003. In Proceedings of Healthy Buildings 2003, December 7-11, 2003, Singapore.

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