Sick Buildings: What You Don’t Know and Can’t See is Hurting You (and Your Business)

In the US and many other countries commercial buildings can sometimes suffer from environmental problems that can adversely impact the occupants of the building. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has coined a term for these buildings “Sick Buildings” and a term for the condition, “Sick Building Syndrome” (SBS).

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is defined as 20% or more of occupants in a building complaining of discomfort and health related issues that are linked to time spent in the building. People experience symptoms such as headaches, ear, nose and throat irritations, dry skin, itching, nausea, dizziness, and sensitivity to odors. The symptoms persist while in the building but are quickly relieved when not in the building.

How big a problem is this? Pretty big, in a 1984 report done by WHO (World Health Organization) it was estimated that 30% of buildings suffer from IAQ (Indoor Air Quality) issues and SBS. In addition illness lead to absenteeism and lost productivity. The — USEPA has estimated that businesses in the US lose 60 billion dollars per year due to lost productivity. Sick buildings and their effects on people can have huge financial impacts.

What are the causes of SBS? There can be many factors that contribute to SBS. A building that was designed for one purpose and is being used for another, for example, the building was designed for office activities and is being used as a printing operation. That building and its ventilation system wouldn’t have been designed for that purpose. Chemical contamination can be a cause. Chemical usage inside the building, materials and products used in the building can all off gas VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) which can produce irritations. Chemical or other pollutants carried into the building, for example, a factory opens up nearby and now disturbing odors are noticed in the building. Also biological contamination, mold, mildew, and bacteria mostly from uncontrolled moisture can cause health symptoms and discomfort by occupants.

VOC’s and exposure to them are the most common cause for SBS. Exposure to VOC’s will cause many of the above described symptoms to susceptible individuals, and also the symptoms are relieved when exposure to the VOC is reduced or eliminated. This is a similar pattern to SBS complaints.

What can you do to correct or prevent SBS? Three important factors to consider for any building’s air quality are

  • Source Control
  • Ventilation
  • Air Cleaning

Minimizing the source of pollutants inside or entering into the building is important. Chemical usage and material selections that are low VOC emitting should be used. Also the building envelope should be checked to see if unwanted air and pollutants are entering the building. Water intrusion and moisture and humidity control is also important, as this can lead to mold and mildew and associated problems. Also building maintenance records should be kept and maintenance performed to schedule. Also every building should appoint an IAQ manager to maintain air testing records, IAQ complaint records, and address other environmental issues.

Ventilation is important for health and comfort in any building. The ventilation design should be done to ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers) standards. The proper design of delivering air in a balanced fashion is critical to an indoor air improvement success. Poor ventilation design and poor pressurization can often cause or contribute to SBS situations.

Air Cleaning is also a critical point to consider. Even with minimizing pollutant sources and proper ventilation and air movement, the building still needs to address airborne contaminants that can be a byproduct of the building, its location and the occupants and their activities. Bi-Polar air ionization, air purification is one method that has been used very successfully in these situations.

The US Army has installed over 500 of these systems to help prevent and correct SBS situations in many of their bases. The bi-polar technology presents several advantages, it address VOC’s very effectively which as discussed earlier are a major source of SBS complaints, it easily adapts to existing building heat and cooling systems, it is a very low maintenance product so it retains its effectiveness without requiring frequent attention, and it also operates efficiently, many buildings have used these systems to reduce outside make up air and save significant energy costs while providing a better air quality for occupants.

With some knowledge of how SBS situations can happen and the factors that can cause SBS, building operators can structure a plan to prevent this unfortunate situation and also to address any building related complaints quickly and effectively.

Smells Matter

Dining out is all about the food and the experience. From the producer, distributor and retailer to the restaurant – how the food is stored, prepared and presented can be a sensory experience that makes you want to come back again and again.

However, unwanted or unpleasant odors can deter from that experience and lead to a false and negative impression of a dining establishment or food market.

A seafood restaurant, for example, can receive and prepare very fresh fish daily, but in the course of preparation there is waste that needs to be disposed. This waste is held in a garbage room or dumpster and as it sits and breaks down, odorous bacteria grow and smells can waft out into dining areas or into the general area outside the restaurant, giving the impression that the fish is not fresh or safe. This is a common problem in supermarkets with fish departments and cases. Although everything is being done correctly, odors are a natural byproduct that need to be dealt with.

Removing the Smell

One very effective way to deal with unwanted and distracting odors is by purifying the air and reducing the contaminants that lead to odors in a restaurant or supermarket. One extremely effective technology for reducing odors is bipolar air ionization. This is the introduction of positive and negative air ions into spaces such as dining areas in restaurants, trash rooms and other trash storage areas, kitchens, food cases and general food store areas, basically anywhere that odors are produced or customers can come in contact with them.

These ions perform many functions, including reducing bacteria and germs. Bacteria can often be odorous and can lead to contaminated food. Clean air systems using bipolar ions attack and kill bacteria, reducing odors and preserving freshness in food.

Many gases can also lead to odors and deterioration of food. Ethylene gas, which is produced by many fruits and vegetables, will increase mold growth and spoilage of produce. This gas also has an unpleasant odor. Bipolar ions are very effective at breaking down ethylene, eliminating the odors and also improving the shelf life of produce, as less saturation of ethylene gas will forestall the spoilage process.

The food establishment may also be victim to odors beyond its control that affect the customer’s experience. The building could be located in an area where odors reside in the outside air caused by a nearby industrial facility, a busy highway, a waste water facility, etc. In these cases, the bipolar ion systems are quite effective as they can integrate with the building’s heating and cooling systems to supply ions with the conditioned air to inside spaces and reduce contaminants, providing cleaner, fresher odor-free air and enhancing the dining experience.

Gaming casinos such as Hard Rock Casino, Stations Casinos and Wynn have used these systems to reduce odors such as smoking in their gaming areas and also in the restaurants within the casino to provide an odor-free environment.

Staying Healthy

Another fact in any restaurant, supermarket or other food establishment is the need for staff. Food service establishments need a high ratio of staff to customers to ensure a pleasant experience and good service. Add in the shoppers or diners and you have a densely populated space where illness and germs can be spread from person to person.

As every restaurateur knows, you don’t want your cooking or wait staff calling in sick on Saturday night. Absenteeism equals lost productivity and lack of service. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that businesses lose $60 billion per year due to lost productivity. The spread of germs, illness and absenteeism is reduced when the air inside is kept cleaner, fresher and healthier.

Indoor air quality is one amenity that can touch all aspects in a foodservice establishment, from the staff to the patrons, to the food itself. As careful choices are made about amenities in food servicing, whether in a supermarket or restaurant, new consideration should be given to cleaning up the indoor air from germs, bacteria and odors to help ensure a positive, safe and odor-free dining experience.

More Employees are being squeezed in the workplace

I N THE POSTRECESSION office environment, “creative” and “collaborative” workspaces are the new mode. Companies today—particularly in knowledge-based industries, technology, and life sciences—want open floor plans with minimally obstructed floorplates and much higher worker density. Office densification is an evolving trend with significant opportunities and challenges.

What do local zoning codes have to say on this topic?

Zoning falls behind

“I’m just not hearing planners talk about this as an issue,” says Kirk Bishop, vice president at Duncan Associates’ Chicago office. “I hear about office densification and I’ve heard about some issues, but I’ve not seen any rush to change regulations yet.

” Both startup companies and major companies are increasing the number of workers in office environments. Traditionally, zoning regulations have based office parking, traffic, utility demand, and development standards on populations of three to four workers per thousand square feet of usable floor area. Today companies are pushing to double that number.

Opportunities include more economic development; challenges include infrastructure impacts. Impacts on parking, utilities and site amenities are being driven by commercial real estate brokers, interior architects, and mechanical engineers. Few planning departments look at the impacts of more workers in the same square footage. Zoning standards tend to be driven by building size, not the number of people working in the building.

“This is a trend that started before the recession, but is taking off,” explains Dean Bellas, president of Urban Analytics, Inc., and adjunct professor of real estate at Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning in Washington, D.C. “In 2005 in the (D.C.) area, the typical urban office allocated about 200 square feet per worker. By 2017, that’s expected to drop to less than 180 square feet.”

Brokers are already seeing that trend in markets in the West,Southwest, and Southeast. With properties capable of holding up to eight workers per thousand square feet, listings tout parking ratios of six to seven spaces per thousand square feet for Class A office space as compared to zoning regulations requiring three or four spaces per thousand square feet.

What tenants ask for?

“Tenants are demanding the kinds of amenities planners have sought all these years,” says Michael Starling, director of economic development for Dunwoody, Georgia. “We’re a former edge city (of Atlanta) now looking at urbanization. Tenants are demanding, and developers are building, amenities like on-site parks, restaurants, a walkable environment, and access to public transit. These are features planners have called out as necessary for quality communities. They are now minimum standards to attract quality tenants.

” Starling says that even older office buildings are upgrading lobbies, adding green space, and providing free shuttles to Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority stations. “State Farm paid a premium to build its new one-million-square-foot regional corporate headquarters on top of a MARTA station,” he adds. “We’re seeing owners building parks or locating near city parks, trails, and developing amenities such as gathering spaces, fitness centers, and places to eat.

” State Farm Insurance, based in Bloomington, Illinois, takes the same tack in Dallas and in Tempe, Arizona. Its two-millionsquare-foot Arizona campus sits on the shore of a large urban lake with an extensive trail network.

“We’re building a 40,000-square-foot plaza with seating, WiFi, and space for an event venue,” explains Richard Drinkwater, principal and senior architectural designer with DAVIS, the architectural firm charged with designing Marina Heights, State Farm’s new western regional headquarters. “We’re building restaurants, a fitness center, training rooms, and open floorplates,” he says. “There is a lot of bike parking and public space.”

Tempe plans to add a station for its downtown trolley to connect the 6,000 State Farm workers at Marina Heights to Metro, the Phoenix area light-rail system. Dunwoody has several projects that include fast-casual restaurants on pads in the office campus parking areas—similar to traditional retail center design. Dave Seeger, a broker with Jones Lang LaSalle in Phoenix, says he’s heard of that concept in Minneapolis and in urbanizing suburbs.

Office developers are responding to tenant demands. “We’re building Mach One (an office campus) dedicated to a happy and healthy employee,” reports Sven Tustin, vice president of development and investment for Trammell Crow Company’s Arizona business unit. That Chandler, Arizona, office campus is designed from the ground-up for collaborative and creative workspaces. “We’ve designed the building to handle 6.5 workers per 1,000 square feet. To make this work, we have amenities to help tenants attract and retain employees,” Tustin adds.

Mach One is located in a suburban market with little access to public transit, but easy access to freeways. About half the spaces in the surface parking area will be covered—a coveted amenity in a desert city. “With that much parking, it’s a long walk from parking spaces to the office,” says Tustin. “We’re building tree-lined and shaded walkways through the parking lot. Other amenities include collaborative space in the lobby and outdoor green areas, all with Wi-Fi access.”

“Tenants are really focused on the quality environment of a building and its setting,” explains Katie Ekstrom, a vice president in the Austin, Texas, office of CBRE, a national commercial real estate brokerage. “We have one new building going up, and two historic buildings being renovated,” she says.

“Tenants want lots of light, so the few hard-wall offices are on the interior,” Ekstrom notes. She talks about one tenant who installed all-glass dividers in the office so that natural light can reach all workspaces and every employee has a window view.

In addition to natural light, new-economy tenants want high ceilings and offices conducive to workgroups and Millennial working styles. One thing Millennials do not want is long commutes, obliging companies to look for work sites that combine housing and urban living—the heart of transit-oriented development. This is a major opportunity for central cities’ older office buildings.

Retrofitting old offices

While the market is driving this change in new buildings, most regulations don’t really apply. This creates challenges when an owner wants to convert older offices to meet newer tenants’ needs.

Companies’ second highest operating cost, according to Bellas, is the office lease. “Many companies are increasing density in order to decrease the amount of space they need to rent,” he explains. “With newer buildings designed to accommodate those needs, older buildings are struggling to compete.”

During the recession, market rents dropped to levels where companies in Class B and Class C office space could move up to Class A or Class B space for the same or even lower rents. Vacancy rates in older buildings skyrocketed.

The evolving Western trend is for older office buildings to be “demolished-to-shell” and redeveloped into Class A, collaborative workspaces. The campuses in outlying and suburban areas, usually with multiple buildings, are short on transit access and parking. Owners are literally demolishing existing buildings to provide surface parking for the structures that remain.

“It’s more cost effective to demolish a Class C building, put in surface parking, and upgrade the remaining buildings to a higher lease value,” says Tim Olson, a senior vice president with JLL in San Diego. “Accommodating six or more workers per thousand square feet increases the building value and generates an effective return on investment.”

Applying “lipstick” to upgrade a building isn’t enough. Olson says that Scripps Plaza, an office complex on Interstate 15 about 16 miles north of downtown San Diego, struck a positive note with tenants even before construction started. “We took a building that was nearly empty and have rented almost a third of it,” he says.

The reason, he says, is amenities. “Renovation alone will not make a building attractive to today’s tenants,” Olson says. “We are building a 4,000-square-foot collaborative area with Wi-Fi and a lobby cafe. We’ve added a shower for bike commuters, locker room, and fitness center. We opened ceilings and created open floor flexibility.”

In Phoenix, JLL is the broker on a similar project, Tempe 10/60. The former three-building, 90,000-square-foot Class C complex is being repurposed into a two-building 70,000-square-foot Class A campus. The recovered ground will become parking. “Parking garages cost $20,000 per space; it was more cost effective to tear down the smallest building” to make space for more surface lots than it was to build a parking deck, says Seeger, who is a managing director at JLL, Phoenix.

Zoning and redeveloping offices

“We haven’t had any issues with (the city of Austin),” says Ekstrom. “The bigger challenges come when our engineers and consultants start looking at what it’s going to take to convert an existing building.”

” Renovating and redeveloping offices has both upsides and downsides, says Bellas. “There are the benefits to the community in terms of economic development, and there are the costs imposed on community by the increased occupancy,” he adds.

“Perimeter Center is different than the rest of our city,” says Dunwoody community development director Steve Foote, aicp. “We saw the need to address development and redevelopment specifically for this area.” The city, incorporated in 2008, appears to be one of the first to craft a zoning code covering office densification.

Rebecca Keefer, aicp, the city planner, says that Dunwoody plans to create incentives for height or density. “Considering changes in worker density is an issue that could be on the table,” she says. If so, it appears to be one of the first communities to take that step—with Bishop and Duncan Associates as the consultant.

Existing buildings present special problems when redeveloped for higher densities. “Who thinks about elevator traffic?” asks CBRE’s Ekstrom. “In one of our historic buildings, we’re allowing high density on lower floors where stairs are an option. You can’t add an elevator.”

“Sometimes people don’t realize the air quality problems coming from adding more people into a smaller space,” says Tony Abate, vice president of operations for Atmosair, in Fairfield, Connecticut. “Mechanical systems suddenly become inadequate when worker population increases from the original rating,” he says. “Go to an open ceiling and the (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) system also has 20 percent to 30 percent more air to move in addition to what it has to exchange for the workers.”

When the HVAC is “overpopulated,” interior humidity builds up, affecting electrical equipment, transporting microbes, and creating an environment for mold.

“We’ve seen mold and spore problems in (high-density) offices where tenants have had to relocate,” says Justin S. Dixon, president of Snyder Environmental, in Little Rock, Arkansas. “Older buildings may not physically be able to accommodate increased duct sizes. Roofs may not have been engineered to hold up a larger HVAC system.”

When it’s hot

Danielle Casey, economic development director for Scottsdale, Arizona, knows about the impacts of technology company migration into the city’s downtown and riverfront area. A failed retail plaza, the Galleria, has become the hot tech spot partly because it adjoins Scottsdale’s famous nightclub district. Microsoft and tech startups are among the firms gobbling up the available space.

“We’ve had a number of high-tech companies move into the downtown area,” she says. “They’re packing six, even nine employees per thousand square feet. It’s completely revitalized the area, but taken every parking space. I’ve talked with executives, and they say the hip, urban atmosphere is what attracts and keeps employees.” Parking is just one problem. Peak hour traffic jams are another. Scottsdale has moved to articulated buses and a faster rush hour schedule to accommodate workers. There is much, however, to keep the employees downtown, with restaurants, clubs, and entertainment surrounding the workspace. Several developers are building upscale residential communities within walking distance of the job center.

The old Galleria is a successful conversion to creative work spaces that the tenants demanded. Some owners have had bigger challenges with old building infrastructure or undesirable locations.

Not all conversions will work. “On one project,” says Dixon, “we determined the building infrastructure could not physically be upgraded to accommodate the owners’ plans. They had to walk away.

” As a result, some structures come down. “We’ve had some office buildings and shopping centers—and not that old a facility— demolished for new office buildings,” reports Foote, the community development director in Dunwoody. Olson sees the same in San Diego.

Driving economic growth

Double the number of people working in an area and there’s an immediate boost to the local economy. Bellas says that in addition to the multiplier of the construction and office furniture purchases, “you’ll need more restaurants, more service businesses, and more retail to handle the increased employee population.

” “We have nearly single digit vacancy rates for retail—and I don’t think there is any open restaurant space in Perimeter Center,” says Starling in Dunwoody, referring to a mixed office and retail campus that was built in unincorporated DeKalb County before the town formed. “In addition, it has really given a boost to the number of people who are using MARTA and other public transit. At the same time, it’s aggravated an already challenging traffic situation. We’re struggling for a solution.

” At some stage in the evolution, the demand for infrastructure capacity is going to outweigh the ability to deliver the services in a timely way. Dunwoody has taken steps to act before that point is reached. Will other agencies follow its lead?


The Healthy Home, A new standard sets the bar for wellness

Twenty years ago, sick building syndrome, a catch phrase characterizing homes and offices with a range of issues from poor air quality to black mold, was the buzz in housing. The latest today is wellness, and the focus isn’t just potential health hazards, but rather indoor environments that promote physical and emotional well-being. “It’s about creating a space to help your body rejuvenate,” says L.A. designer Sarah Barnard, who is LEED AP and recognized as a Building Biology Practitioner.

Not just another feel-good fad, wellness has been codified with a Well Building Standard, which addresses air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. Researchers and physicians from leading medical institutions, along with construction experts and architects, spent six years developing the standard. Pilot projects range from offices, restaurants, student housing, schools and healthcare to wellness-themed rooms at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

The standard was developed by Delos Living, founded by Phil Scialla, whose interest was sparked by a renovation of his own loft in New York’s meatpacking district. “I discovered there was no one offering this type of holistic wellness solution for homes,” he says. “I started to think about the different types of features we could add to architecture, design and construction that could lead to preventative intentions for people within their home.”

There is a natural synergy between wellness and green building. The U.S. Green Building Council will certify the WELL standard, as well as streamline how its green certification program, LEED, and the WELL Standard will work together. A current pilot project, the William Jefferson Clinton Children’s Center in Haiti, will receive both certifications. Another recent collaboration between the two is CBRE Group’s world headquarters in Los Angeles, which is the first office space to be both LEED Gold and WELL certified.

Delos’ first wellness residential properties — five upscale residences with 15-foot ceilings and huge windows (highly rated for both efficiency and noise attenuation) in a turn-of-the-century building in New York’s Greenwich Village — hit the market last fall. Some of the first residents include Deepak Chopra and Leonardo DiCaprio. Both are members of Delos’ powerful Advisory Board, which includes Dick Gephardt; Nicholas LaRusso, medical director of Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation; and Michael Roizen of the Cleveland Clinic. Although not on the board, Bill Clinton is another supporter.

Wellness in homes begins with air quality. “We can live without food and water for seven days, but we can only live without air for about seven minutes. Air is the foundation for total wellness,” shares Tony Abate, a certified Indoor Environmentalist who is vice president of operations at AtmosAir Solutions in Fairfield, Connecticut. The best purification systems do more than remove dust and contaminants. They also balance the level of positive and negative ions in a home. The result, Abate says, is raising air quality to the same level as the Alps.

Trends become movements when they are adopted by a wide range of individuals, and indications are wellness is rapidly gaining momentum. “Everybody understands the immediate benefit to their own person and to their family of having a healthy environment,” says Barnard. For wellness, the motivation and impetus is coming from multiple constituencies — consumers suffering from environmental allergies, green and sustainable evangelists, the medical community and legions of moms. Although the World Health Organization identified poor indoor air quality as a health issue as early as 1984, the tipping point in the public’s awareness came with a 2011 study showing that most pregnant woman in the U.S. have toxic chemicals in their body. The study ignited the movement against BPAs and heightened women’s interest in healthier homes, according to Charlie Elverson, insights strategist at Wray Ward, a creative marketing community firm that specializes in elevating the American home. Mothers of children affected by allergies and asthma are particularly ardent advocates, according to Elverson. Other outliers promoting wellness include the percentage, although small, of the population who suffers from MCS or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, which is a chronic condition related to low-level chemical exposure.

Also driving innovations to improve built environments are manufacturers, actively pursuing ways to remove substances, such as formaldehyde, that release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from building products, flooring, paints, fabrics and glues into the air. Other manufacturers are developing products that scrub the air. Floors that clean the air might sound improbable, but one company, Lauzon, has a line of hardwood that does just that, using a titanium dioxide finish that, when activated by natural or artificial light, breaks down toxic contaminants in the environment into harmless molecules. It sounds too good to be true, but independent research backs up the claim. Sherwin Williams introduced a line of zero-VOC interior paint that reduces or eliminates indoor odors caused by pets, cooking and smoke. It also contains new technology, which reduces VOC levels in the air and improves air quality, and it also inhibits the growth of mildew and mold on the paint surface.

Water has become as critical as air quality for many. Interest in filtration systems that remove chlorine, heavy metals, even trace pharmaceuticals, as well as systems that balance the pH in the water is on the rise. In the Delos residences, shower water is infused with vitamin C to promote healthy hair and skin.

Chances are this is just the beginning for wellness. “I see more of my clients seeking the best holistic products, looking for benefits extending beyond aesthetics and mere function to aiding in a better way of life,” says designer Kara Smith with Smith/Firestone Associte in Los Angeles.