Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Air pollution and healthy buildings

Following on from our recent blog regarding air pollution (see MVHR & air filtration blog) in UK towns and cities I wish to expand upon this further after reading various articles about pollution in other countries around the world and in particular, China.  It would seem that China is slowly waking up to the fact that its rapid industrialisation, which has relied on burning coal, is having a very noticeable and damaging affect within its local environment.    Recent soil studies have found that almost one fifth of China's soils are now contaminated with toxins from industrial and farming processes, and, in addition to this air quality in towns and cities is starting to become a major concern and in some cities it is at crisis level. 

In this BBC news article you will see images of Chinese citizens queuing at a bus stop all wearing pollution masks and the video clearly shows the level of pollution and smog against the sky scraper sky line.  

‘The air quality is so bad it's comparable to living near a forest fire’

At two of our Passivhaus schemes Knights Place and Rowan House we installed CO2 sensors to monitor air quality in the flats.    Some of the results of this can be found here Passivhaus monitoring blog.

CO2 sensors were used as CO2 build up is considered an indicator of poor air change rate and poor air quality.  If CO2 levels increase it shows that windows are not being opened sufficiently or ventilation systems are not effective enough to replenish spaces with fresh air.    A build up of CO2 can also provide an indication that there is likely to be a build up of other toxins within the space.   Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from modern furnishings and appliances made of plastics and un-natural materials held together by glues, chemicals used in the home for cleaning, chemicals from paints and decorated finishes, nitrous oxides from cooking, dust particles, and odours can all build up in the home and even more so in modern air tight dwellings resulting in unhealthy spaces for us to live in.  It is no coincidence that modern illnesses such as respiratory problems, depression, conditions such as chronic fatigue (ME), and lack of concentration are becoming more prevalent with the modern lifestyle which is largely spent indoors in these toxic environments. 

Its an interesting observation therefore that CO2 levels being an indicator of indoor air quality can also to some extent be an indicator of air quality in the external atmosphere.  Towns and cities typically have higher CO2 levels than the countryside.   Its is currently understood by the international scientific community that increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere are resulting in climate change around the world.   In the background to this are many climate change denial groups who do not believe the evidence as it is presented or are deliberately pushing forward agendas financed by interested organisations.    Regardless of what is thought, there is no denying the fact based on this evidence that the burning of fossils fuels is polluting the air that we breathe.  The more we also contaminate the natural environment such as the soil and plants which help filter the air and the more we also remove this natural filtration system by deforestation the more polluted the air will become.   The very obvious problem in China and recent air pollution in the UK is simply highlighting the state the natural environment is currently in.  

This is not something that is likely to happen in the future, it is something that is happening right now and does not need science to state its case as it is very evident by the people living in these cities.  In the words of Bob Dylan:

"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"

Indeed, you do not need a weatherman or expert to tell you which way it will be blowing either unless there is a more concerted effort to cleaner ways of generating energy and reducing the reliance on chemicals in homes and making them safer and healthier places to live in. 

Where outside international pressure on China to reduce its CO2 emissions and reduce coal burning has not had the desired effect it would seem that pressure from its own citizens to live in healthier environments will likely be more effective.  

This is the reason why we put health and comfort at the forefront of our design principles.   For sure buildings can be designed to look amazing and win architectural awards which we do, but if its simply not a comfortable and healthy place to be in then what is its point?  Buildings are designed for people to use and be in. 

We have a particular passion here at G&S to ensure good quality architecture goes hand in hand with healthy building design using natural materials and at the same time has minimum impact on its local environment.   This drive to design in this way has helped us to recently become the first Building Biology Consultancy in the UK to be officially accredited by the Institute for Building Biology and Ecology (IBN) in Germany.  See our Building Biology blog on this.

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