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.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Gale & Snowden become first UK Building Biology Consultancy IBN

Gale & Snowden have become the first Building Biology Consultancy in the UK to be officially accredited by the Institute for Building Biology and Ecology (IBN) in Germany.

We have been designing healthy buildings for over 20 years.  This accreditation by the IBN is recognition of the practice's dedication and expertise in this field.

The IBN was founded in 1976 to provide objective information and to offer a holistic approach to building biology and its teaching and to promote a healthy, ecologically and socially responsible living environment.

What is Bau biology?

The term biology is derived from the Greek word bios, "life", and the suffix -logia, "study of."

Biology is defined as the science of the different forms and manifestations of life and the conditions, laws and the causes through which they have been affected. (G.R.Treviranus)

The German word ‘Bau’ means building and describes both the process as well as a completed construction.  It can also refer to a construction site or more general the building industry.

Bau biology (or Building biology) is the study of the holistic interrelationships between humans and their build living environment.

Why bother?

Today, our living environment is defined by the spaces and buildings we have created for ourselves.

Most of us take great care when it comes to what we eat, where our food comes from, what we give to our children, how we keep fit etc., but when it comes to construction unfortunately the focus is only very rarely on the human being, their health or well-being.

Very often the focus is purely cost driven and economic viability, low maintenance costs and short payback periods are typically the key drivers for developments.

Since the 1960s the industry has responded to this demand by developing a vast range of highly processed construction materials and elements that reduce costs and speed up construction.  Whereas up to the first half of the last century traditional construction materials like bricks, concrete, stone, timber would dominate construction, now highly processed petrochemical based materials and products are generally used.  Construction components today consist of a complex mix of chemicals to improve their lifespan, their workability or construction speed.  At the same time chemicals used are not fully understood with regards to long term exposure.  Materials are only looked at in isolation and not in combination with other materials.  Whilst toxic substances like formaldehyde are restricted in their allowed concentration within one component e.g. in plywood boarding, this does not take into account the amount of plywood used in a building or that it is typically combined with other indoor sources of formaldehyde e.g. carpets, PVC flooring, paints, varnishes, glues etc.  When assessing the complete building, limiting the concentration of a carcinogenic substance like formaldehyde in individual components is meaningless.

"The dose makes the poison" and the dose is dependent on the concentration and exposure time.

On average we spend about 90% of our time indoors and 30% of our time in bedrooms.  With these exposure times even low concentrations of potentially harmful substances can affect our health in the long term and cause chronic diseases.  More vulnerable inhabitants like children and elderly persons are particularly exposed to this risk.

Bau biology is about managing this risk.  Risks are identified and assessed based on the Standard of Baubiology Testing Methods issued by the Institute for Baubiology and Ecology IBN (Germany).

The Standard gives an overview of the physical, chemical and biological risks encountered in sleeping areas, living spaces, workplaces and  properties.  It offers guidelines on how to perform specific measurements and assess possible health risks.  All testing results, testing instruments and procedures are documented in a final written report.  In case potential problems are identified, an effective remediation strategy is developed.

By minimising the risks without affecting quality or comfort Bau biology seeks to create healthy living environments that are free from pollutants, dusts, particles, fungi, bacteria and radiation.  Based on the precautionary principle i.e. where there is evidence of a potential risk, this risk is to be designed out or minimised wherever possible.

The standard focuses on the four key elements: water, indoor air, indoor climate and radiation. 

The 25 ‘Baubiologie’ principles act as a guide:  

1.        Building site without natural and human-made disturbances
2.        Residential homes away from sources of emissions and noise
3.        Low-density housing with sufficient green space
4.        Personalised, natural, human- and family-oriented housing and settlements
5.        Building without causing social burdens
6.        Natural and unadulterated building materials
7.        Natural regulation of indoor air humidity through humidity-buffering materials
8.        Low total moisture content of a new building that dries out quickly
9.        Well-balanced ratio between thermal insulation and heat retention
10.     Optimal air and surface temperatures
11.     Good indoor air quality through natural ventilation
12.     Heating system based on radiant heat
13.     Natural conditions of light, lighting and color
14.     Changing the natural balance of background radiation as little as possible
15.     Without human-made electromagnetic and radiofrequency radiation exposure
16.     Building materials with low radioactivity levels
17.     Human-oriented noise and vibration protection
18.     With a pleasant or neutral smell and without outgassing toxins
19.     Reduction of fungi, bacteria, dust and allergens as low as possible
20.     Best possible drinking water quality
21.     Causing no environmental problems
22.     Minimising energy consumption and utilising as much renewable energy as possible
23.     Building materials preferably from the local region without promoting exploitation of scarce and hazardous resources
24.     Application of physiological and ergonomic findings to interior and furniture design
25.     Consideration of harmonic measures, proportions and shapes

More information on Building Biology and Gale & Snowden's approach to healthy buildings can be found here.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery helps to filter indoor air against external air pollution

Recent high air pollution levels across the UK are highlighting the fact that more needs to be done to combat air pollution.  DEFRA this week has issued health warnings across England with regard high air pollution levels which are said to get higher by the weekend.  London is already at the maximum level on the air pollution scale of 10.  The high air pollution levels are due to a mix of UK and European emissions such as Nitrous Oxide (NO2), Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), ozone, particulates and dust from the Sahara.  The UK is particularly bad at reducing air pollution levels and the European Commission has recently launched legal proceedings against the UK for failing to reduce levels of NO2 air pollution.  These warnings are simply highlighting the state of the air quality in some of our cities which is only going to get worse as the climates warms up and smoggy, still days become more prevalent.  According to the World Health Organisation air pollution is the world's single biggest environmental health risk.  

The use of mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) in homes with F7 filters on the supply air can help filter out some of these contaminants and keep our homes fresh and healthy.  Not only is MVHR effective at removing contaminants inside and ensuring adequate fresh air, with suitable filters on in the incoming supply side they can filter and clean outdoor air as it comes in.  At some of Gale & Snowden's recent multi residential schemes such as Knights Place and Rowan House where we designed in the MVHR systems to include F7 filters, we have been testing and monitoring for air quality where residents are reported to be very happy with their indoor environment in terms of air quality and fresh air, even without having to open windows in winter.   

As well as providing architectural design service and Passivhaus design consultancyGale & Snowden also employs building biologists, building physicists and mechanical engineers.  This integrated approach enables us to design buildings that are not only passive and low energy but are also truly healthy places to be in.