Indoor Air Quality Integrated into Green Operations

The average person spends 90 percent of his time indoors, and is exposed to a number of pollutants from indoor air. Many third-party associations have developed certifications for certain products.

Despite the industry’s best intentions, buildings can make your residents and tenants sick. The average person spends 90 percent of his time indoors, and is exposed to a number of pollutants including tobacco smoke, asbestos, formaldehyde, VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from building materials, cleaning materials, paints, adhesives and pesticides, just to name a few. These can lead to both short-term and long-term adverse health effects. Perhaps surprisingly, the air in our homes is often more polluted than the air outdoors.

As is the case with other environmental issues, a number of green regulations involve indoor air quality. The Federal Clean Air Act includes standards for national ambient air quality, but many states and localities have also devised their own legislation. California’s Air Resources Board, for example, regulates the formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products sold in the state. It also sets limits on VOC emissions for hundreds of products, including adhesives, architectural coatings and household cleaners.

For this reason, many third-party associations have developed certifications for certain products. The Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label and Green Label Plus programs, for example, test carpet, cushions and adhesives to identify products with low-VOC emissions. Carpet that meets or exceeds these requirements can contribute one indoor environmental quality credit toward a LEED rating.

The GreenGuard Environmental Institute provides a number of third-party certifications, including GreenGuard Indoor Air Quality Certification, which tests for more than 10,000 individual VOCs and meets health-based emission levels for over 350 VOCs. GreenGuard Building Construction Certification certifies multifamily and commercial new-construction and renovation projects that follow best practices for preventing moisture intrusion during design, construction and operations of these spaces. Meanwhile, Green Seal-certified products are evaluated using a life cycle approach that starts with raw materials extraction, continues through manufacturing and use, and ends at disposal.

Solutions to air quality problems in apartments include controlling the sources of pollution, increasing ventilation and installing air-cleaning devices. While residents can improve the indoor air quality of their individual units by removing a source, altering an activity, unblocking an air supply vent or opening a window, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) points out that only the building owner or manager can remedy most problems.

Because of this, “indoor air quality is a big piece of [green operations] and is probably the hardest to both maintain and market,” notes Fred Schreiber, vice president of development at AMLI Residential.

The first step is to test the tightness of the existing units. “A lot of the contaminants that get into an air space get in because … there’s some pollution coming from the outside into the unit,” notes Schreiber. “We try to identify common problems or common leakage points and seal those up.” AMLI has also begun to place an emphasis on regularly replacing air filters, and the company is exploring bringing fresh air into the units.

The key to indoor air quality is “ventilation with proper filtration,” adds Connie Hensler, director of corporate life cycle assessment programs for Atlanta-based Interface Inc., a modular carpet manufacturer. “You have air transfer between apartments. Flushing those units with exterior air is the quickest way to reduce emissions.”

In many apartments—such as Watermark Cambridge in Massachusetts, which recently earned LEED for Existing Buildings: Operation and Management (EBOM) certification—the only ventilation is through bathroom exhausts. “The building has three heat wheel-type energy recovery ventilating units with power exhaust, each providing approximately 9,000 cfm (cubic feet per minute) of outside air to the corridors and recovering energy from exhausted apartment bathrooms,” explains Kirk Bradford, service manager for Watermark, which is managed by Gables Residential for Principal Real Estate Investors. “Each [AAON energy-recovering ventilating] unit has a hot water heating coil and DX cooling coil, which are controlled to maintain zone temperatures in the corridors.”

But while the indoor air quality component of achieving LEED EBOM in multifamily buildings is often a deterrent for developers, the results are worth it, according to Bradford. “I get compliments [from residents] on the air coming into the common corridors,” he notes.

The role of product selection

More and more manufacturers have developed low-VOC alternatives to their traditional products in recent years. Paints and carpets, in particular, are often replaced with their more eco-friendly counterparts on unit turns.

“In many cases, the cost premium is not that significant,” Schreiber notes. “A lot of products now have eliminated [VOCs] so we can control [off-gassing] on a more effective basis just by demanding that our contractors or our in-house team use the products we select.”

Some companies, such as Interface, for example, have rethought the entire process through their Mission Zero initiative, which strives to eliminate the negative impact the company has on the environment by 2020. Instead of installing their carpet with glue, for example, Interface has developed a glue-free (ie. low-VOC) method of installation.

“The original emissions from carpet were much higher than [they are] today. [Current levels have resulted from] certification programs that got more rigorous,” notes Hensler. However, standards continue to evolve. “Buildings are becoming so much tighter that the air flow is reduced—it’s offsetting the great improvements [already achieved] and continues to raise the bar” on expectations for the industry.

Of course, while owners and operators can instruct their vendors and in-house teams on what products they can and cannot use, enforcing such a mandate on residents is much more difficult—unless you happen to be giving away those products for free, as is the case at Watermark, where residents receive Green Seal-certified cleaning products upon move-in, which they can then refill for free, Bradford explains.

While most companies do not give away green cleaning supplies for free, some do provide a move-in basket with supplies that can get residents started on the path to a healthier indoor air environment.

Breathe easy

In addition to VOCs and pesticides that can be brought from the outside in, carbon monoxide and tobacco smoke can also greatly affect the indoor air quality of apartments.

For this reason, AMLI Residential recently rolled out its “Breatheasy,” or smoke-free, program in four of its communities in Seattle, Chicago, Denver and  Atlanta. While these communities are smoke-free throughout, the company also recently rolled out the program across the company portfolio’s common spaces.

The decision to be “Breatheasy” in the apartments needs to be made on day one. “It’s very difficult to transition halfway through,” points out Kai Weber, vice president of marketing at AMLI. “You really can’t start accepting a demographic that expects to be able to smoke inside their home and then all of a sudden say, ‘you no longer can smoke.’” Furthermore, she points out, “the people you’re attracting to your community, who move in because it’s a smoke-free community, aren’t going to want to live there knowing that two years ago it was not smoke-free.

“We spend a lot of time researching initiatives and discussing not just what’s out there but what’s realistic, from a cost perspective and what our residents are going to be willing to take on and be involved in,” adds Weber.

Thus, enforcing “Breatheasy” is a community effort. Management enforces the policy by fining residents it catches smoking, but, Weber notes, residents enforce it as well. “We can spend the money to make [a program] available at our communities, but whether or not it will actually make a difference is going to, in large part, be dependent on whether residents are active in the movement.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Erika Schnitzer