Don’t Sign that Lease without Verified Ventilation Performance Defined

by Tom Kolsun

Did you know you breathe more than 11,000 liters of air a day? If you’re reading this, you will probably spend around 2,000 hours per year breathing the air in the office for which you are about to sign that lease. This year alone, you will bring into your lungs more than 900,000 liters of whatever is in the air of that cool new office space. Would you drink 900,000 liters of water if I said, “I actually have no idea what’s in it or how long it has been sitting in this room . . . but it’s fairly clear and doesn’t really smell too bad.”

Here are some interesting facts to consider about indoor air quality:

  • Indoor air often contains four to 10 times the amount of pollutants of outdoor air.
  • Many studies have linked exposure to small particles (PM2.5 — defined as airborne particles smaller than 2.5 microns) with heart attacks, cardiac arrhythmias, strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, worsened symptoms of asthma and an increased risk of respiratory illness (Newsweek Magazine, “Your Office Air is Killing You” by Douglas Main, 6/26/16).
  • The World Health Organization says that particulate matter contributes to about 800,000 premature deaths each year, making it the 13th leading cause of death worldwide (“Clearing the Air: A Review of the effects of Particulate Matter Air Pollution on Human Health” by Jonathan O. Anderson, corresponding author Josef G. Thundiyil, and Andrew Stolbach, 12/23/2011).

Employee wellness programs are great for employees and employers. The ability to reduce absenteeism and pre-absenteeism (working while sick) is the right thing to do and it goes directly to your bottom line. A study by Dominion Systems concluded that unscheduled absenteeism cost roughly $3,600 annually for an hourly worker and $2,650 for a salaried worker. Seems like a very compelling case for incorporating ventilation performance into your employee wellness program.

How about requiring proof that the small particle levels in that shiny new office are measured and controlled? Have it defined in your lease; require Verified Ventilation Performance — VVP.

Now consider how verified ventilation performance (VVP) in your lease will increase productivity with your healthy employees. United Technologies and The Harvard School of Public health conducted a study on the effects of indoor air quality on worker productivity ( ). It demonstrated that:

  • Lowering the levels of CO2 and VOCs resulted in their participants scoring 61 percent higher on cognitive function tests compared with those in conventional offices.
  • There was a 101-percent improvement on their cognitive function tests when the ventilation levels were doubled above the standard ASHRAE prescribed levels.
  • Information usage scores were 299 percent higher than conventional offices when the ventilation rates were doubled.

The conclusion of this study couldn’t be clearer: Verified ventilation performance will increase employee performance. That impact will be throughout the whole staff, not just for those who choose to participate in employee wellness programs. Everyone will benefit.

How about attracting/retaining top talent and how that affects your bottom line? If you want to attract the top talent, you need to focus on more than just the visual aspects of your lease — fixtures, furniture and fun things. It is a fact that employees are paying attention more and more to the healthy conditions of their work environment. As evidence of this, we see surging growth in such certification programs as Green Globes, WELL Building and WELCOA.

If your lease mandates verified ventilation performance, you are already contributing significantly to points required to attain these programs’ certifications. And don’t be naive in thinking your competitors are not doing this. They are. Use the VVP in your next lease as a recruiting tool!

OK, Makes Sense. What Should I Ask For?

Bottom line is, you want to make your inside air be like the outside air.

Let’s look back a few decades and see how we got where we are with office ventilation. Most offices design the core and shell with a set-it-and-forget-it strategy, which has been completed long before your company ever arrives, or adds employees. I call this the 1970s Standard. Typically, this means that 80 percent of the indoor air is recycled. The percentage of ventilation air allowed in the facility is usually designed when the building is built, and is usually based on standard ASHRAE formulas. The amount of ventilation air that comes in is frequently dependent on the position of a damper on the air handler.

Ask anyone you know in the building automation business how often they have experienced the actuators which control these dampers being broken. Oftentimes, a building engineer has clamped the damper at a set position because the building was unable to maintain heating or cooling loads. Imagine it is a very hot and humid day. By reducing the ventilation air, the system isn’t trying to cool 95-degree air (and dehumidify it). It only needs to cool air being returned from inside the building, which has gone up only a few degrees above your office’s set point. The same thing happens on cold days, with these values reversed.

Do you know where your buildings outside air damper is set? Do you know how much ventilation you are getting right now? 

The Challenge

Maybe you are thinking, “OK, this makes a lot of sense to me. I want fresh air in the place where I’m going to spend 2,000 hours this year; therefore, I will demand in my lease that the air-handling system not recirculate any air. I want 100 percent outside air coming in.”

There actually are buildings that run on 100 percent outside air. Research laboratories are an example. All the air entering the building comes in from the outside, blows through the rooms and is immediately exhausted out. They are designed this way to dilute chemicals, which are usually in fume hoods but may occasionally escape into the breathing zone. Why not demand your next lease mandate this type of HVAC system? The air would be fresh and clean all the time. It would be like standing outside on the roof of your building. Health and productivity would abound.

Here is why that won’t work: The fans, cooling, heat and re-heat in lab buildings typically triple the first cost of the HVAC equipment of an ordinary office building. Ongoing, they average seven to 10 times the operating cost. As you can imagine, this will result in unattainable lease expense.

Even if money were no object, the environmental impact of this strategy would be grave which is why most energy codes do not allow for this. Please consider that buildings are the largest contributor to greenhouse gasses. In a 300,000-square-foot office space, running a standard HVAC system with 100 percent outside air would require an additional 27,580 MMBTUs. In layman’s terms, your office would be adding 1686 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year. That would be the equivalent of burning 239,826 gallons of gas every year, or adding 479 cars to the roads every year. EBITDA and Mother Nature both preclude a standard HVAC system with the dampers set 100 percent open and no recirculated air.

Stop reading for a minute and look around your office. Do you see people consuming every square foot of space? Normal office occupancy is between seven and 10 people per 1,000 square feet. That leaves significant open spaces. And, many times, people are congregated. Rooms and large portions of space are open. What if you have a system that would increase ventilation, but only where and when you need it?

The 1970s standard made a run at this. Using the best commercially available technology at that time, offices were designed with some carbon dioxide sensors on the walls. This was intended to keep ventilation levels low and to increase outside air based on carbon dioxide levels. But here’s the problem (brace yourself): Air can be polluted by things other than carbon dioxide. So, we build these airtight offices, reduce the outside air as much as possible to save energy (and the environment), and either have a fixed amount of outside air or vary it based only on one potential contaminant. Not a recipe for a healthy and productive 2,000 annual hours.

It’s now 2019. You’re not carrying an analog bag-phone anymore. You need to have real-time measurement of the all contaminants in your office air and match that with real-time control of the outside air coming into your office. You need a lease that requires the landlord to:

  • Bring in a lot of outside air — but only exactly where and when you need it;
  • Measure and control more than just temperature and carbon dioxide; and
  • Display the ventilation performance for you and your employees.

The Solution

This technology exists; just ask for it. You need to demand the new 2020 Ventilation Standard in your next lease. Think about it: You have a watch with sensors that tells you how much you slept, walked and pumped blood. Your car’s sensors prevent lane changes, collisions and will email you for maintenance needs. But your office — where you breathe thousands of liters of air every day — is ventilating the exact same way it did in the 1970s.

Demand the 2020 Ventilation Standard in your next lease. But what, specifically, should you ask for? I highly recommend your next lease should require measured and verified ventilation that follow the criteria prescribed by the International Well Building Institute, or some similar organization. They state that for optimal health, comfort and productivity the air in your office should remain:

  • Total VOCs: less than 500 ug/cubic meter
  • Small Particles: (PM 2.5) to be less than 15 ug/cubic meter
  • Relative Humidity: 30% and 60%
  • Carbon Monoxide: below 9 PPM
  • Carbon Dioxide: below 750 PPM
  • And you need to be able to see it validated anytime on your computer or mobile device.

Technology exists that can not only monitor these parameters but can actively control the ventilation rates to maintain high-production/high-health air. Many systems can also display this information with easy-to-understand graphics. You want your employees, prospective employees and tenants to have full visibility to the great indoor environment you are delivering. This should be your biggest marketing tool toward attracting and retaining great talent and tenants.

Tom Kolsun is a strategic accounts manager of Aircuity, Inc. (, where he is responsible for developing campus-wide, airside efficiency programs for the largest operators of research space on the East Coast. Kolsun has more than 25 years of experience in the building industry, focused on systems serving commercial facilities with a primary focus on technical sales, system design and project management.

 Kolsun brought to Aircuity more than 15 years of wide-ranging entrepreneurial experience, primarily in the commercial construction field as founder and president of two technology-related companies. Kolsun holds a BA from the University of Maryland and an MBA from Pace University. He is the president and co-founder of the PA/NJ/DE chapter of the International Institute for Sustainable Labs and is active in the Association of Physical Plant Administrators of Universities and Colleges, the Building Owners and Managers Association and the U.S. Green Building Council.

Photo by Maurice Williams on Unsplash (top)

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