Humans breathe more than 15,000 litres of air every single day, consuming approximately four times more air than food and liquid. We’ve long known the importance of ambient air quality to our health. In fact, it is estimated that approximately 92% of the world’s population live in communities where ambient air quality guidelines do not meet those established by the World Health Organization (WHO).

However, we shouldn’t forget that indoor air quality (IAQ) also matters. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has suggested that the levels of indoor air contaminants are often two to five times higher than outdoor levels, and in some cases these levels can exceed 100 times that of outdoor levels. Inadequate ventilation, poor material selection, contamination from the outside and microbial contamination all contribute to this.

What’s in the air and why should we care?

The most common indoor air contaminants are combustion sources, such as candles, tobacco products, stoves, furnaces and fireplaces that release pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and small particles, into the air. Building materials, furnishings, fabrics, cleaning products, personal care products and air fresheners can all emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) into the indoor environment.

Inhaling pollutants can result in headaches, a dry throat, eye irritation and a runny nose. These symptoms may later develop into extreme health outcomes, such as asthma attacks and cancer. Further, exposure to air pollutants has also been shown to increase the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, myocardial ischemia, angina, high blood pressure and heart disease. In a Global Burden of Disease Study by Lim et al (2012), household air pollution was rated as the third most important contributor to ill health for the world’s population.

Fundamental interventions for good indoor air quality

The WELL Building Standard prioritises good indoor air quality through the Air concept. WELL aims to ensure high quality indoor air across a building’s lifetime through diverse strategies that include source elimination or reduction, active and passive building design, operation strategies and human behaviour interventions. In order to drive change towards healthier buildings and people, WELL includes a range of required health interventions – or “preconditions” – that every project must achieve. These preconditions provide rigour to the process and confidence to the people inside the building.

In WELL v2, the latest version of the standard, there are four preconditions within the Air concept that every project must achieve to earn WELL Certification:

  • A01 – Fundamental Air Quality. This feature focuses on providing a basic level of indoor air quality that contributes to the health and well-being of building users. It looks at the actual air quality, is performance tested for contaminants such as particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), ozone, carbon monoxide, benzene, formaldehyde, toluene and radon.
  • A02 – Smoke Free Environment. This focuses on deterring smoking, minimising occupant exposure to second-hand smoke, and reducing smoke pollution. All WELL Certified projects must ban or restrict both indoor and outdoor smoking within the project boundary.
  • A03 – Ventilation Design focuses on minimising indoor air quality issues through the provision of adequate ventilation. It includes compliance with AS 1668 (2012) for new systems or testing and balancing for existing buildings.
  • A04 – Construction Pollution Management focuses on minimising the introduction of construction-related pollutants into indoor air. It also looks at construction-related indoor air contamination for human health (i.e., health impacts on construction workers), and looks to protect building products from degradation. Duct sealing, an air flush at practical completion, and moisture and dust management are all important considerations as part of this feature.

Some optional WELL features in the Air concept require installation of a specific treatment method or technology. Regular maintenance of selected air treatment systems is critical to ensure their optimal operation and expand their “life expectancy.”

In addition, eliminating the source of contaminants via the Materials concept of WELL v2 –

whether this be hazardous materials or the potential for viral contamination –  is also important. A famous chemist, Max von Pettenkofer, said in 1858, “If there is a pile of manure in a space, don’t try to remove the odour by ventilation. Remove the pile of manure.” As energy efficiency in our buildings play an important role in climate change mitigation, eliminating the source needs to be prioritised as much as the ventilation and filtration of our air.

How are WELL Certified projects making IAQ visible?

  • Interface Sydney, WELL Certified Gold: Interface is headquartered in a unique and special part of Sydney. Located directly adjacent to Sydney Central train station, the building is heritage listed and the location and fabric of the structure might normally seem challenging from an IAQ perspective. However, in addition to high quality F7 air filtration on supply units, the team has provided several standalone portable air filtration devices across the floorplan to ensure the highest quality of air possible.
  • Haworth Shanghai, WELL Certified Silver: Haworth’s office and showroom in Shanghai incorporates real time continuous air quality monitoring of particulate matter, VOCs and CO2; increased levels of fresh-air exchange; non-toxic and non-off-gassing materials; and high-quality air filtration. Every person entering the space is able to determine the quality of indoor air in real time via large visual displays.
  • Arup Melbourne, WELL Certified Platinum: Arup’s office in Melbourne achieved one of the highest scoring WELL Certifications in Australia and was amongst the first few projects in Australia to be certified under the WELL v2 pilot. The project not only designed a healthy entrance to limit the infiltration of outdoor pollutants, but the team also utilised a demand-controlled ventilation system that regulates the outdoor ventilation rate to keep CO2 levels at maximum intended occupancy less than 600ppm.

Are global perspectives and recent events a sign of things to come for Australia and IAQ?

In many parts of the world good indoor and outdoor air quality is not taken for granted. There are constant reminders of its importance – when an office worker in China enters a building with an air quality display to demonstrate the current pollution levels inside and outside, or even in how a former U.S. President speaks about the need for climate action. The need for improved air quality drives action. And it drives growth for healthier buildings.

In Australia, the rise of buildings that advance human health and the pursuit of WELL Certification has certainly been driven by a competitive property industry looking for differentiation and the ability to demonstrate ESG leadership. But the global COVID-19 pandemic has raised consumer awareness about the role healthy indoor environments play in keeping us healthy, and consumer demand for these healthier spaces is growing.

The horrific bushfire season of 2019/2020 followed by the global COVID-19 pandemic has meant that IAQ has never been of greater interest to the wider community within Australia. Suddenly, Australians have air quality apps on their phones, they know what IAQ stands for and they understand the concepts of ventilation and recirculated air. Previously the less-than-visible elements of our indoor spaces were largely disregarded beyond a small cohort of experts focused on the science and building management professionals. Now, Australians are increasingly looking to make the invisible visible.