The role of new sensors in managing indoor air quality

With miniaturized, low-cost sensors, it is possible to visualize indoor air quality at unprecedented scale

Clean air is one of the foundations of a healthy workplace. It is critical for enhancing productivity, comfort, and well-being among occupants and can help reduce illnesses and absenteeism. Managing indoor air quality (IAQ) focuses on two main elements: delivering abundant fresh air and controlling common pollutants in the air, such as particulate matter, toxins, and allergens. 

There are a variety of building codes and government health and safety standards that support healthy air in commercial workspaces. Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified public scrutiny and media coverage of indoor air quality, raising an important question for commercial real estate operators and tenants: Are existing standards and practices sufficient?

WeWork’s current approach is to answer that question using data. We use data on the quality of indoor air to see the impact of our design and operating decisions, especially as industry practices change and adapt over time. At WeWork, we have a global commitment to deliver safe and healthy spaces for our members, employees, and visitors.

What is good indoor air quality? 

Indoor air can be polluted, or made stale, by gases or tiny particles emitted from many sources. One example is if smoke from outdoors gets inside. Humans are also a source of indoor air pollution, and the minimum requirements for air turnover in buildings are designed to flush out bioeffluents and nuisance odors from occupants.  

There are four important ways to control these pollutants and achieve good indoor air quality. WeWork employs these measures to ensure good air quality in our buildings. 

  • Two strategies relate to the HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) system, which is responsible for replacing and cleaning used air through ventilation and filtration 
  • The third strategy, source control, aims at preventing the use of polluting materials or activities in the first place 
  • Finally, practices to keep spaces clean, dry, and hygienic are important to avoid mold and the buildup of allergens and toxic substances on surfaces  

The role of low-cost sensors

Well-managed buildings use these four strategies to maintain good air as part of standard practice. The commercial real estate industry is enhancing the way it manages buildings to accommodate a heightened level of concern—not just from COVID-19, but also from wildfires and outdoor air pollution.  

Until recently, the only tools available to check on the intended outcome—good indoor air quality—were cumbersome. Measuring levels of gases or particles in the air required collecting air over many hours or days, and then waiting until it was analyzed in a laboratory. Or, it needed a trained specialist to transport large, expensive, and often loud instruments into and out of a space.   

An air sensor installed in WeWork Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, CA. Photograph courtesy of Chris Hammond.

With newly available, miniaturized, low-cost sensors, it is financially and technologically possible to visualize indoor air quality at unprecedented spatial and temporal scales. This ability is particularly important now, during a moment of disruption in commercial real estate. (Note that low-cost particle sensors count or weigh all particles in the air but cannot directly differentiate particle types, such as the virus that causes COVID-19.) Data that these sensors can provide help ensure new practices are effective and have positive health impacts, considering the unique mix of conditions in a particular environment.  

At WeWork, we have been piloting the use of innovative sensor technology since 2017. We now have continuous indoor air quality data collection from thousands of devices. We are using the aggregated data to better understand factors that influence the air quality in our buildings. Our early efforts support the development of protocols and policies for the collection, reporting, and use of this new class of data.  

Things to consider when using sensors

Sensor data, on its own, is useless. Building owners and operators don’t improve spaces by enhancing them with sensor networks. They improve well-being and productivity by acting on the right data, in the right ways. To do this, they need: 

  • Contextual data, often referred to as “metadata”: information on the building, exposed population, and measurement quality
  • Discernment: the ability to interpret what the data tell us about how good a space is. The interpretation for sensors requires new scientific knowledge, because the data are more distributed and ubiquitous but less reliable when considering a single measurement point than equivalent “traditional” measurements. 
  • Ability to act: the ability to connect data to building controls or to decision-making processes 

The problem is not that building operators lack knowledge and guidance. It’s that they have too much. The green building industry has a standard, RESET Air, that provides a strong foundation for the right use of sensors in buildings. The challenge is rather that it can seem, now, that there are as many guidelines and rubrics for measuring and scoring indoor air quality as there are scientists, green building rating systems, and space types. This has led to a trend among companies to, increasingly, create their own programs and policies, selecting the elements that fit them best. 

These are early days for IAQ sensors in commercial real estate, and there are not only questions about their proper use but also about their value and potential risk. How can industry experts account for the elements of air quality that matter for well-being but cannot be reliably or cheaply sensed? And how can we future-proof the changes we make to our infrastructure today, as the technology continues to advance at a rapid pace? At WeWork, we look forward to working with other experts and early-adopters of sensors to answer the hard questions together, so we can operationalize indoor air quality data collection and response procedures for spaces that are better for people and the planet. 

Seema Bhangar, Ph.D., is WeWork’s indoor air quality manager. Her mission is to drive the use of new science and technology for designing, building, and operating buildings that are better for health, productivity, and the planet. Dr. Bhangar previously served as product manager for next-generation indoor sensing devices for Aclima, Inc. She earned a B.A.S. from Stanford University and an M.S. and Ph.D. in public health and environmental engineering, respectively, from the University of California, Berkeley. 

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