News / Healthy Buildings: How to Achieve Good Indoor Air Quality

Over the last few years, the harm that the construction industry is causing to our environment from harmful emissions has impacted the public conscience. Global, national and local initiatives are being put in place to reduce damage caused to our planet, major initiatives such as the production of clean energy i.e. Wind turbines and solar power are being rapidly expanded, along with other new initiatives. Countries are setting goals to become carbon neutral; pressure is being applied to industry to reduce harmful emissions and at a local level many cities and towns are planning to reduce the number of vehicles that enter them each day to reduce pollution from harmful exhaust emissions.  But did you ever stop to think about the damage that products and materials used in indoor environments cause?  Many of our everyday products and items emit dangerous BTEX gases; from building materials, furniture, heating and cooking systems, stored solvents, paints, fibreglass, PVC, rubber floorings, nylon carpets, SBR-latex-backed carpets, flooring adhesives – the list goes on.

Here at Native, we take indoor air quality very seriously when designing buildings and we are proud to report that Native’s recent projects, in both the residential and commercial sectors that used natural materials in their construction and finishes, have shown lower concentrations of BTEX gasses (Benzene a carcinogen, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, M/P-Xylene and O-Xylene) in indoor air studies, carried out in partnership with York University.

From 2000 onwards it became our ambition as an architects practice to design buildings with the best thermal performance possible to respond to the challenge global warming presented and the need to drastically reduce carbon emissions. At this time the key driver was building performance, achieved without necessarily understanding the unintentional consequences and damage that complying with the Building Regulations could cause, particularly in older buildings. The regulations were amended in 2000 and several times subsequently, notably in 2006 due to the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act, these changes have now led to much stricter requirements for the building industry to conserve energy.

Native Architects aspired to be a leader in sustainable construction and aimed to make our buildings future proof and to make this possible we invested in training and became members of organisations that were pioneering new knowledge, such as sustainable construction and the use of natural materials, and today we don’t just aim to meet building regulations that relate to energy consumption, sustainable construction, thermal efficiency, carbon footprints etc, we aim to exceed them, and avoid the use of harmful building materials.

From 2010 onwards, organisations such as English Heritage, SPAB, STBA and The National Trust started to undertake research work on a bigger scale than our budgets would ever allow, at a time when the UK Government’s Green Deal was threatening to cause a huge amount of damage to traditional buildings across the UK. A major programme of building work with the aim of achieving better-performing buildings, coupled with the use of novel, low carbon technologies took off with unintended consequences.

It became apparent through published research that the indoor air quality of buildings, particularly historic buildings was affected negatively when improvements to the thermal performance of their fabric were not carefully considered. By increasing the thicknesses of some modern insulation materials such as phenolic foam, moisture was being trapped within the building fabric causing damage and decay as the insulated building’s fabric was no longer breathable. Thermally insulating buildings to make them more energy efficient compounded problems relating to breathability, hence compromising indoor air quality. At Native, we are confident that the natural insulation materials we specify are more breathable and can buffer and absorb moisture and release any absorbed water as the relative humidity within buildings increases or decreases. Native’s aims to play a positive part in creating effective solutions, low risk and sympathetic to buildings and their users.

The proof that natural materials are effective, low risk and sympathetic to buildings and their users were in the mainstream, but we had no proof that Native Architects projects were benefitting from our choice to use natural materials whenever possible because as previously mentioned small architectural practices do not have a research budget to test and monitor their projects.

In 2018 after attending a public lecture on the York University campus given by Professor Nic Carslaw, on the effects of cooking and cleaning products on indoor air quality, we met up with the University of York Student Placement team and applied for a student intern funded by Santander Bank. The aim was to assist Native with a research project on the impacts of perceived green materials on indoor air quality. A collaboration between the University of York Department of Environmental Science and Native began and we carried out collecting and testing the indoor air quality of a range of residential and commercial buildings we had completed and produced a report. The Effect of Green Building Materials on Indoor Air Quality in Residential and Commercial  in North Yorkshire, UK by Oliver Anderson.

The results are very telling and show how the use of natural materials such as wood fibre insulation and lime plasters have a positive part to play in regulating indoor air quality and this has also been proved by larger pieces of academic research in this field.

Adrian Leaman, co-founder of “Usable Buildings” – for those who want to make their buildings more suitable for the people who use them, less damaging to the natural environment and a better long-term investment, said that our research report “comes over as a balanced and thorough piece of work”.

Nicola, Professor in Indoor Air Chemistry, University of York, will be speaking on the 24th of February at the 6th annual ASBP Healthy Buildings Conference on this very subject:-

The impact of building materials on indoor air quality and research around a comparison of standard materials and low emission materials.

So whether you are planning to renovate or renew an older building, looking to build new residential or commercial properties, and truly care about providing healthy indoor living or working spaces, contact Native Architects, specialists working with natural materials that research has proven to deliver high-quality indoor environments.