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Sustainability At Work In The Workplace: A View On Achieving Indoor Air-Quality

Last week, Katherine Bruce, Senior Sustainability Consultant at AESG in conversation with WORKSPACE talks about the challenges of achieving indoor air quality in offices.

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Katherine has worked on certified and WELL projects for office fit-outs here in the U.A.E. She started her career back in 2014, originally in the oil and gas industry, as a chemical engineer. Taking an interest in climate change, she felt her skills would be better put to use in an engineering environment. After going back to university and learning about sustainable engineering, she began her career at AESG where she now helps clients throughout the Middle East in improving their sustainability practices in the built environment. 

At the start is where you can have the biggest impact.

DO YOU WORK WITH CLIENTS FROM THE VERY BEGINNING?

Right at the concept design stage is where all the ideas are coming out. Nothing has been completely defined yet you have a lot of scope to make an improvement in the project.

But we do work in sustainability across the whole chain so a few projects that I've worked on are just in the construction stage where it's more of a monitoring role, ensuring they're meeting the compliance for sustainability targets that the project has set. My favorite part is right at the beginning because that's where you make the biggest difference and you can have an impact on them.

WHAT’S BEEN THE MOST CHALLENGING PROJECT YOU’VE WORKED ON?

For one of the projects we recently worked on, we were trying to achieve high levels of indoor air quality inside the office. After running a couple of tests inside the building, we discovered they were having very high levels of formaldehyde.

This is a really carcinogenic chemical that can off-gas from different materials inside the environment, especially inside offices. We had made sure that all the materials were of good quality, the air was being filtered so we couldn’t understand what was going on and why we were not achieving low formaldehyde levels in the office.

So it was a bit of an investigation… I reached out to the facilities management team to figure out what was going on in the space and it turned out that they were using two cleaning products, bleach, and soap at the same time; as standalone products, they didn't contain any formaldehyde. But when used together, they were reacting and created high levels of formaldehyde inside the space. I discovered this through research papers and trying to figure out the chemical reactions that were happening from these two chemicals, so I definitely felt like a bit of a detective trying to solve this problem.

When I realized that could be the source of formaldehyde, I had to speak with the facilities management team to get them to change the way they cleaned the space and over the course of a few weeks, the formaldehyde levels actually dropped in the space. When we figured out what the case was, we managed to certify the project in the end.

The positive thing about considering sustainability is the materials that we put inside spaces; if they are sustainable, they inherently have lower toxic chemicals.

HOW DOES SUSTAINABLE DESIGN BETTER THE WORKPLACE?

Off-gassing is a huge issue in spaces, especially inside offices where we have to be productive throughout the day. The positive thing about considering sustainability is the materials that we put inside spaces are if they are sustainable they inherently have lower toxic chemicals, they have lower VOCs, they are better for the environment but they are also better for us.

Materials that contain a lot of chemicals like volatile organic compounds, these VOCs off-gas in the environment. For example, if you've been into space that has been newly painted and it has got that new paint smell, that chemical smell is harmful to breathe in the short-term as well as in the long-term, you'd be looking at asthma or number of chronic diseases. So eliminating them from the design specifications, in the long run, will improve the indoor air quality of a space and improving indoor air quality then helps to improve the productivity of the employees.

Sustainable design also touches upon the efficiency of the building, water consumption in the building, and if you're in a space that you know that is better for the environment, then it does help boost your overall morale and productivity.

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