Clearing the Air

Is your building making your residents sick?

While green building has increasingly become more popular, if an apartment is contributing to a resident’s poor health, it doesn’t matter how sustainable the building purports to be.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air contains more pollution than the air in the great outdoors, and with the average person spending about 90 percent of his time inside—with a large amount of that time spent in his residence—the likelihood that he is exposed to these pollutants is high. Multifamily owners and operators, therefore, need to ensure that the quality of the air within their four walls is of the utmost priority.

In addition to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and pesticides that can be brought from the outside in, carbon monoxide and environmental tobacco smoke can also affect the indoor air quality of apartments. For this reason, some apartment buildings are choosing to go smoke-free. Trammell Crow’s Alexan CityView in Bayonne, N.J.—the largest LEED-certified multifamily community in the U.S.—for example, features the first 100 percent smoke-free apartment building in the state.

Although a certain level of quality is a given, a higher-than-average indoor air quality may be “seen as an added value,” notes David Borchardt, P.E., LEEP AP, director of sustainable development at Rockville, Md.-based The Tower Cos., which developed the Blair Towns, the first LEED-certified apartments in the country. “It’s something we try to take to a higher level. If your residents are happier and healthier, they are more likely to stay.”

Clearing the air

Sick buildings—those that have poor ventilation or chemical contaminants—can cause occupants to experience acute health effects, according to the EPA. Indoor air problems can stem from improper operating procedures or occupant activities, though poor building design can also be the culprit.

The beginning of the design process—including site selection, building orientation and location of outdoor air intakes—as well as proper installation of building systems, is key to the promotion of healthy indoor air, according to “The Indoor Air Quality Guide: Best Practices for Design, Construction and Commissioning,” a collaboration between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers; The American Institute of Architects; Building Owners and Managers Association; United States Green Building Council and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors of North America.

Inadequate ventilation rates, ineffective filtering, moisture in building assemblies, poor outdoor air quality, moisture and dirt in ventilation systems and indoor contaminant sources can also contribute to poor indoor air quality. Consequently, managers should test the air in their buildings on a regular basis to ensure their communities are starting off on the right track.

The Tower Cos., for example, tests for such things as CO2, dust and mold in all of its buildings, since “air testing will tell us about the things we can’t see,” notes Borchardt, who asserts that the fall season is the most difficult time of year to test for mold, while winter is the optimal time to perform the test. “If there is mold in high humidity, that’s when you’ll find it,” he points out. “In the summer, you can see if it’s in the air conditioner.”

To ensure that the air in your building is as healthy as it can be, utilize fans that pull air out, rather than letting it flow into the building, suggests Tim Button, principal at New York-based Stedila Design Inc., who worked on The Albanese Org.’s three LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified residential developments in New York’s Battery Park City, including The Solaire (LEED Gold), the Verdesian and the Visionaire (both of which were LEED Platinum, the latter of which is New York’s greenest condominium).

The Visionaire features a fresh-air supply and exhaust system, in addition to a four-pipe fan coil system, that continuously cleanses the air in the units. However, a high level of indoor air quality is not only for luxury condos; in fact, both the Verdesian and Solaire are rental communities that feature fresh filtered air, continuously humidified or de-humidified depending on climate conditions; 24/7 exhaust in all kitchens and bathrooms and low-VOC paints and building materials. The Verdesian also includes continuous internal monitoring, MERV (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) 12 filters in all resident HVAC units and a high-performance exterior wall system that includes a vapor and air barrier to minimize random air-infiltration.

Because mold can be a potential problem in apartment communities—products such as gypsum board, ceiling tiles, insulation and carpet can support mold growth if left untreated—pipes need to be sealed properly so that any extra moisture is addressed, cautions Borchardt. “The way to prevent mold is to make sure you don’t have leaks in plumbing and pipes,” he says. “Make sure you re-caulk; make sure toilets are sealed properly.” Equally important is the regular cleaning of air filters.

Despite the precautions that apartment companies take to prevent—or remove—mold, residents also need to be aware that they are just as responsible for their indoor air quality, perhaps even more so because owners cannot control what they bring into their individual units. “It’s one of the reasons we encourage people to go to green dry cleaners, etc.—to do the best they can because there are other things they can do to green their lives,” Borchardt explains. Therefore, resident education about mold and moisture is key to prevention. Incidentally, the GreenGuard Environmental Institute offers several classes about indoor air quality, including “Healthy Indoor Air by Design,” “Design to Prevent the Damaging Effects of Mold,” “Indoor Air Quality and Healing Environments,” and “Clearing the Air on Sustainability: Why Good Indoor Air Quality Matters.”

Because incorporating large air filtration systems is a much more difficult undertaking in existing buildings, it is just as important “to look at the things that are simply in the space—[such as] the finishes,” Button points out. “All of that, when it’s sealed in, that’s where you are really going to impact your [air] quality.”

Material world

Common organic pollutants, which can be two to five times higher inside than out, are often found in many design and construction products common in apartment buildings, such as paint and cleaning products, according to the EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

In an ideal world, exposure to all such products would be limited, but this proves particularly difficult when building environments incorporate various chemicals. So what’s a multifamily owner or manager to do when tasked with the role of choosing products?

“This seems silly and obvious, but I smell [all materials] that I pick up. If it has a smell, it’s off-gassing VOCs,” asserts Button, who recommends reading all labels on interior materials.

Both residents and apartment companies should also be cautious about furniture comprised of foams that break down and off-gas, warns Button. And particleboard, which is often combined with formaldehyde for use in some cabinets and other wood-like products, “must be green, meaning that the binders that make the sawdust into a hard board have to be low-VOC,” he explains.

As Button points out, it has become much easier to incorporate low-VOC fiberboard, paints and other finishes into new buildings, whether they are green or not. “Oil-based paints are pretty much a thing of the past,” he notes. In the mid-Atlantic region, for example, regulations prohibit oil-based paints from even being sold.

Breathe easy

Perhaps the biggest air quality concern—at least from the perspective of residents—is during unit turnover. “The number one resident complaint is the amount of dust that results from a unit turnover,” ascertains Borchardt.

To eliminate complaints, ensure that doors are sealed properly and that sticky pads are located outside units being worked on to guarantee dust is controlled. It is also important to make sure doors are closed when painting units—preferably with low-VOC paints. Borchardt recommends shutting off the air in the hallways while work is being performed so that chemicals are not blown into neighboring apartments or common areas.

In its newly branded EcoPads (these are the greenest apartments at The Blairs)—as well as units that are undergoing a turnover renovation—The Tower Cos. has installed carpets that meet CRI’s (The Carpet and Rug Institute) Green Label Plus, no- or low-VOC paints and wood cabinets that feature adhesives with no added urea-formaldehyde. In addition, Borchardt notes, the company ensures that airflow exhausts are working properly and that “the air that we supply to the building through the main air handlers goes through higher-efficiency air filters.”

Additionally, all cleaning products used are low- or no-VOC, and the company employs integrated pest management systems, so that only affected areas are treated, eliminating excessive spraying of pesticides. But, notes Borchardt, the company tries to use as few pesticides as possible anyway, as it has incorporated native plants in its landscaping and spot-treats when a problem arises.

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