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School Construction 2005

September 22, 2005

Top concern of every school staff: air quality

  • Schools are insisting on better indoor-air quality. Here's what to consider.
    BLRB Architects

    Photo by Doug Scott Photography/BLRB Architects
    Tacoma's Mount Tahoma High School, completed in 2004 for $75 million, integrates daylight and natural ventilation into all its learning spaces. Non-toxic finishes were used throughout the interior.

    As more is known about how the physical school environment affects learning and productivity, indoor-air quality is becoming not only the most challenging issue, but also offers perhaps the most tangible rewards in educational facility design, construction and maintenance.

    Evidence continues to emerge indicating that poor indoor-air quality can lead to illnesses requiring absence from school. It can also cause acute health problems that decrease performance and reduce cognitive learning skills such as memory, concentration and calculation.

    "Asthma is the No. 1 disease affecting school children."

    — American Lung Association

    "Nearly 50 percent of teachers are afflicted with respiratory illnesses."

    — Healthy Buildings '97

    "More than one-third of America's school buildings have serious environmental issues."

    — U.S. General Accounting Office

    These are but a few examples of the severity of this problem and the real impact indoor-air quality has on the health and wellbeing of school building occupants.

    Since 1999, BLRB Architects has interviewed literally hundreds of school staff and administrators through our work on over 60 educational projects in the Pacific Northwest. The number one issue raised ahead of such things as academics, safety, aesthetics and storage was a concern for a healthy learning environment and specifically for the quality of air they breathe.

    Furthermore, when working specifically on remodel projects, school staff will frequently share their personal health problems they attribute to the school environment. Quite often they describe symptoms such as headaches, allergies, asthma, eye problems, sinus infections and sore throats.

    The bottom line is school staff, administrators and parents are quite aware of the health impacts of poor indoor-air quality. Oftentimes they are convinced the quality of education in their schools is being diminished by poor air quality.

    The issue is real, the stakes are high and we as educational facility planners, designers and managers must lead the charge to address this ever-growing, critically important issue. If our goal is to create high-performance learning environments that truly enhance learning and productivity then providing quality indoor air is essential!

    Elements of air quality

    The quality of indoor air in schools is a function of several elements including air temperature, relative humidity, the air's composition and whether the air contains contaminants.

    Image by Ron Lloyd/BLRB Architects
    The design for Garfield High School’s renovation and addition features natural ventilation and daylight in the core of the building.

    Temperature and humidity: There is substantial evidence that suggests children's abilities to perform mental tasks requiring concentration such as multiplication and sentence comprehension are diminished when they are too cold or too hot.

    Studies have also shown that maintaining temperatures at the warm end of the comfort zone tends to increase adverse health symptoms, while temperatures at the cool end of the comfort zone tend to reduce symptoms.

    In a similar way, individuals perceive the quality of the indoor air to be better when humidity is at the low end of the comfort zone.

    Indoor air pollutants and inadequate ventilation: Recent studies relate direct student performance measurements to air pollutants.

    For example, a European study of 800 students from eight schools found that reduced ventilation rates in classrooms caused increased carbon dioxide levels from exhaled breath, significantly decreasing the students' ability to concentrate on a computer-based exam.

    Other recent studies addressed the impact of air pollutants on occupant performance within office spaces and concluded that cognitive skills such as logical reasoning, memory and creative thinking are statistically diminished. These are similar to the tasks teachers and students perform in school on a daily basis.

    The 'usual suspects'

    The actual sources of poor indoor-air quality can be limitless and sometimes extremely difficult to determine. However, there are a number of usual suspects to first consider.

    The HVAC system: Is it operating properly? Is there adequate air flow and ventilation rates? When was the last time air filters were changed and ductwork cleaned? Is the control system maintaining consistent air temperature and humidity levels?

    Housekeeping activities: Is the school clean? Are floors cleaned properly and on a regular basis? Are toxic products being used in the cleaning of the facility?

    Interior finish materials and furnishings: Are there high levels of volatile organic compounds in the air due to material off-gassing? What type of paints, adhesives or sealants were used in the construction or repair of the school? Has new equipment or furnishing been recently installed in the school?

    Outdoor contaminants: Are outdoor air intakes located near bus parking, loading docks, trash bins or high vehicular traffic areas? What type and quantity of pollutants are brought into the facility by the occupants? Are the school's exterior entries properly designed to trap and contain dirt and other contaminants?

    Moisture intrusion: Are there signs of moisture intrusion in the building? Are there signs of mold growth? When was the last time the roof was cleaned and inspected?

    Creating healthy schools

    Applying a holistic and environmentally sustainable approach to school planning and design that focuses on developing healthy indoor environments is critical to creating high-performance schools.

    Designing in harmony with nature, using natural resources and materials, and optimizing the use of natural energies such as daylight and natural ventilation will significantly contribute to a sustainable and healthful school.

    The following is a summary of key facility design, operational and maintenance considerations to help achieve and sustain a healthy school environment.

    The HVAC system

    Properly designed and maintained HVAC systems can provide consistently good thermal and ventilation control while reducing the risk of biological contamination.

    Design considerations:

    • Design a system that provides individual room control of heating, cooling and ventilation.

    • Select a system that can maximize ventilation rates.

    • Integrate the use of natural passive ventilation with the HVAC system for optimum results.

    • Install carbon-dioxide sensors in high-occupancy spaces.

    • Design the school for convenient service access to mechanical equipment. Avoid rooftop units — difficult access equates to minimal or no maintenance.

    • Pay particular attention to the locations of the HVAC air-intakes. Avoid locations near school bus parking, loading docks, trash bins and other high-traffic areas.

    • Provide local and specific ventilation at copy and printing equipment.

    • Provide an energy-management system that allows monitoring and control of room temperature and humidity to maximize health of occupants and system efficiency.

    Maintenance considerations:

    • Establish and follow a planned maintenance schedule for HVAC equipment.

    • Change air filters on HVAC equipment on a regular, prescribed basis.

    • Flush the building with outside air prior to the early morning startup of equipment to purge building of airborne contaminants.

    Furnishing and finishes

    Careful selection of "green" interior-finish materials and furnishings will make a considerable contribution towards creating a healthy and effective learning environment.

    More resources are becoming available to specifiers for locating and researching green products, including the GreenSpec Product Directory by BuildingGreen, the AIA Masterspec and the U.S. Green Building Council.

    Design considerations:

    • Provide an effective walk-off matting system at all building entries. If properly designed, 80 percent of the soil and other outdoor contaminants brought into the facility on shoes can be contained at the entries.

    • Select flooring materials that are compatible with how the space is used.

    • Where soft-surface flooring is appropriate, use only high-performance carpeting.

    • Specify "green label," no- or low-volatile organic compound content for paints, sealants and adhesives.

    • Specify no- or low-formaldehyde content products in furnishings, paneling and cabinetry.

    • Work closely with school district maintenance personnel to select finish materials that will be properly and safely cleaned and maintained.

    Maintenance considerations:

    • Establish a cleaning regimen and protocol for all finish materials based on the manufacturer's recommendations and best practices.

    • Establish an ongoing training program for all district custodial and maintenance personnel. Emphasize proper cleaning procedures to minimize indoor-air quality problems.

    • Use nontoxic, biodegradable cleaning products whenever possible and effective.

    Building envelope

    Moisture intrusion in the Pacific Northwest, as well as many other parts of the country, plays a significant role in the potential growth of mold and mildew, detrimentally impacting indoor-air quality. As we design, construct and maintain our schools it is our responsibility to ensure moisture intrusion is minimized.

    Design considerations:

  • Design positive sloping roofs.

  • Drain roofs to the building perimeter and avoid interior roof drains whenever possible.

  • Minimize roof penetrations.

  • Provide ample roof overhangs for weather protection of exterior walls.

  • Specify high-quality roofing systems and materials. This is not the place to cut corners.

  • Provide full-time inspection of roofing system installation.

  • Use "rain screen" methodology for the design of exterior wall systems.

    Maintenance considerations: Develop a comprehensive preventative maintenance and inspection program to address roofing membrane and materials; roof drains, gutters and downspouts; and exterior wall cladding, sealants and flashings.

    As educational facility planners, designers and managers, we have a great responsibility to our country's most valuable resource ... our youth.

    Not only do we have a responsibility to create healthy schools, but we also have the opportunity to enhance student learning and teacher productivity. We now know indoor-air quality is a key component of school facility design and critical to meeting our responsibilities and achieving our goals.

    Through thoughtful and sustainable design strategies, as well as careful facility operational and maintenance procedures, we can ensure our country's schools are truly "high performance."

    Tom Bates is managing principal of BLRB Architects in Tacoma.

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