Is air quality the new carbon?

Eimear Moloney

Eimear Moloney, Associate Director, Performance

The safe limits of sustainability.

For at least the last 20 years the construction industry has made significant progress in understanding and reducing the impact of buildings on the world’s carbon emissions. Regulation has been introduced and assessments made, all with the aim of reducing carbon dioxide emissions from buildings – and that’s been incredibly important.

But there has been a massive shift in what a healthy ‘sustainable’ building actually means. No longer is this just based upon its carbon emissions. There is a bigger, more important – and potentially fatal – issue at play. This issue is seen as so important to regulatory bodies that there’s talk of recommendations being introduced to actually increase carbon emissions in buildings in order to counteract this new evil.

This evil? …all contained within the air we breathe. Air quality is the new carbon. The ‘baddies’ in our air include VOCs (volatile organic compounds: gases from certain solids or liquids), NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) and PM2.5 (particulate matter). The list is extensive and the solution is complicated.

An airborne evil.

The impact of these particulates has long been discussed but it’s rapidly gaining traction as more and more evidence comes to light of the negative impact of bad air quality. For instance, PM2.5 is so bad for your health that there is no safe limit below which it is OK to breathe. Similarly to regulations for a building’s maximum energy consumption, I believe we’ll be seeing limits on particulates in the air inside these spaces very shortly. And, be under no illusion, this will impact our designs.

A recent study by UCL implies it’s impossible to have a simple, naturally ventilated building in the City of London and keep within EU guidelines for PM2.5 levels. In fact, some predict CO2 levels should be allowed to rise above current ‘safe’ limits within a room to reduce the impacts of the worse air quality from outside. All of this is likely to increase energy-use and hence carbon. The argument is there – air quality is the new carbon.