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Healthy buildings can help stop Covid-19, boost worker productivity


A C-suite executive who wants to attract workers back into his office will likely have spent more time considering indoor air quality and ventilation in the past year than they did at any point during their pre-pandemic years.

Healthy buildings are the latest incentive for employees to come back to work. People are naturally anxious about how secure they will feel when they return to work in person. Workers are assured by companies that all surfaces, including keyboards, elevator buttons and desks, are properly sanitized.

But now they’re also paying closer attention to how healthy the air is inside those buildings — and the impact this can have not only on preventing the spread of Covid-19 and other respiratory ailments but how air quality can affect cognitive function.

Joseph G. Allen from Harvard, Harvard’s T.H. Harvard Healthy Buildings program director and Chan School of Public Health assistant professor CNBC Workforce Executive CouncilSummit on Wednesday. Employees with better ventilation perform more efficiently in cognitive functions. This is good for productivity and worker health.

“Droplet dogma haters are gone”

Allen explained that the increase in interest in indoor air quality stems from better understanding how Covid-19 spreads. Clean surfaces, and following the six foot distance rule makes sense. The belief that virus spread via droplets from coughing or sneezing and couldn’t travel farther than six feet made it logical to follow this six-foot distancing guideline.

Allen explained that Covid-19 can be spread via respiratory aerosols, which are capable of traveling well over six feet. He said that when we talk, cough, sneeze, or simply breathe, we constantly release respiratory aerosols in different sizes. These particles can carry the virus, and they can spread throughout any space and remain there for many hours if we are infected. “The droplet dogma has ended.”

These aerosols can build up in a poorly ventilated room, or even a building. They could spread to other areas beyond six feet. Allen stated that all of the major outbreaks he’s seen share the same symptoms. Time indoors, in an area that is not ventilated. It doesn’t matter whether it’s spin, choir practice or dining out. They all have the same fundamental driving factors as transmission.

Allen explained that companies can do something to combat this. Allen said, “Just as we’ve made huge gains in public hygiene around sanitation and water quality, so indoor air quality will also be part of that conversation moving ahead.”

On Tuesday, September 15, 2020, employees wore protective masks to work at the JLL Menlo Park office.

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Give buildings a tune up

First, building managers need to assess the systems in place. They also need to verify that they function as designed. Allen stated, “It might seem obvious, but sometimes we put in equipment and then forget about it for 10 or fifteen years. We don’t give it any maintenance like we do cars.”

Another step is to maximize the airflow from the outside. Allen also suggested air filters that be upgraded to MERV 13. The minimum efficiency reporting values (MERV) stand for minimal efficiency. The average building’s MERV 8 filter captures 20% of all airborne particles. A MERV13 filter can capture 90% of these particles.

These filters can improve the air quality and reduce viruses spread. They also aid workers in improving their productivity.

Harvard’s Allen team recently published a study that looked at the work of workers around the globe for one year. Every worker had their desks equipped with air quality sensors. These workers were able to complete short cognitive function tests using a custom-designed smartphone application. Allen observed that those who had better ventilation and higher particle levels scored significantly higher on the tests than those who worked in less-quality areas.

Allen explained that while healthy building strategies are effective in protecting against infection, they also have many benefits for workers’ health, productivity and performance.

Allen, along with John D. Macomber (Harvard Business School Lecturer), wrote his 2020 book “Healthy Buildings” that demonstrates how improved air quality and ventilation can result in bottom-line improvements for businesses. The benefits of greater ventilation were found to range from $6,500 up $7,500 annually, according to his Harvard research. Allen, along with Macomber in April 2020 Harvard Business Review Article, cites Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory researchers as estimating an increase of up to $20 billion each year for the U.S. Economy by improving indoor air quality.

Allen stated, “In response to the worldwide energy crisis in late 1970s we began to tighten our buildings. In the process, we cut off air flow in order to save energy. This was the beginning of the sickening building era.

He said, “It is no surprise that there are high levels of indoor pollution and sick buildings,” adding that it was not surprising.

Contrary to popular belief, not only are modern buildings health-focused, but so can older, more traditional buildings. He said that any building could be healthy and easy to maintain. In fact, healthy buildings can be affordable. The most costly thing is to buy sick buildings.

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