Vivian Loftness, FAIA, is an internationally renowned researcher, author, and educator. She is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, where she served as the head of the School of Architecture for a decade. As part of the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council for 2014, she will lead the Vision 2020 initiative in Indoor Environmental Quality.This is the first part of a two-part Q&A with Loftness about current concerns in IEQ.

Last year, the Vision 2020 program looked at the relationship between indoor air quality (IAQ) and energy efficiency. How do you think indoor environmental quality (IEQ) factors into total building performance, and how does it need to change going forward?

One of the issues that never really shows up in the energy equation—but is critical to IEQ—is acoustics. There has been a huge shift in space planning, especially for commercial buildings, where walls are coming down. To deal with that, we have to ask to what extent people need quiet conditions to get concentrated tasks done. This also affects occupant densities because when walls come down, workstations get smaller. People are now in much more collaborative work environments, and as a result, they are closer to each other, which brings up health concerns. If somebody comes to work with a cold, do we all end up catching it? It raises interesting questions about open and closed planning and how to manage distraction-free work spaces with a collaborative environment.

Biophilia—the importance of humans connecting to nature—often doesn’t show up in an IAQ discussion, but these elements can be translated to energy use. If we do a good job of providing views that also bring in daylight or allow for natural ventilation, we can save energy. Beyond that, the importance of being connected to the time of day and passage of seasons are part of the IEQ discussion. Elements such as the balance of daylight and electric light, as well as the spectral quality of light, may not show up in IAQ discussions, but will certainly show up in any energy discussion.

There’s a very compatible dialogue. We can do such great things to improve the visual environment while also saving energy.

Are people now recognizing that or do you think there are still silos that prevent people from making the connection between IEQ and energy?

People are definitely recognizing it, but there is still reticence to act because of first costs, even though the payback for lighting is very fast. We do a lot of post-occupancy evaluations and it’s amazing how many offices have lighting that hasn’t been updated for 40 years and doesn’t work for today’s work tasks, energy efficiency, and visual acuity at computer screens. There’s a huge opportunity to improve IEQ, save energy, and see a quick payback.

I’m glad you mentioned post-occupancy evaluations because it seems many people still aren’t using them in daily practice.

People are beginning to use questionnaires because they’re relatively quick and painless, so there is an increase in the number of organizations that are surveying their employees about thermal comfort or air quality. However, it depends on the organization and whether they really want to hear the answers.

Are there other things that builders and architects need to change in their processes to better address and examine IEQ going forward?

We need to get more attuned to the metrics of IEQ. No one walks around with a light meter—but we should. Everyone knows about glare and brightness-contrast issues, but they don’t know how to measure it, even though it is pretty easy to do so. You can do it with your iPhone and it’s actually pretty accurate.

How much does end-user education factor into this?

People help themselves a lot. In the field, we see lots of taped-over diffusers because the draft is causing headaches, or we see people adding fans and strip heaters. People tape over windows that cause glare on their computer screen. Building managers tend to walk around trying to undo these things, rather than seeing them as an indicator that there’s a problem to solve. It would be a fun discussion to see how much people can help themselves and to what extent building owners could embrace that.

Take the example of a fan. Some fans are very energy intensive. What if the building owner raised the air temperature a bit to save energy on the central system, but provided high-efficiency fans for end users. Those who are hot can turn them on. It creates a partnership where those help-yourself tools that improve user satisfaction while also improving energy use. A similar effort can be done with task lighting. Every square inch of your office may be lit up as if you are proofreading legal documents when, in reality, you’re sitting at a backlit computer screen. What if an organization lowered the overall ambient light and then partnered with employees to give them beautiful LED task lights that they can position anywhere they wanted on their desk?

Is there an opportunity there for architects and builders to be initiating these discussions?

Absolutely. It’s a very strategic way to edge our way into more energy-efficient solutions that actually engage the occupant.

Let’s go back to the issue of first-cost, lowest-cost decision making. How do we make the shift to looking at long-term effects? What are the challenges in making this shift?

The architectural profession has been poor at differentiating quality. I do an exercise with CEOs and CFOs where I tell them they can buy a $10,000 car to get from point A to point B, or they can buy a $30,000 car or a $50,000 car. Then, I ask them why would they buy a more expensive car? They fill pages and pages of flip charts because they know exactly what they’re getting.

Next, I tell them that they can buy a $1,000 laptop that will get them on the Internet or they can buy a $3,000 laptop. Why would they spend more? They have a lot of reasons as to why they would buy a better-quality machine. But, when I tell them that they can spend $100 per square foot to house their employees or they can spend $300 per square foot, they have no idea why they would spend more money.

We have not differentiated a quality product the way the car industry has. We haven’t differentiated quality in thermostats and temperature control, in light fixture type, or in facades, so people bottom line these things because they don’t see the difference.

When I ask people about the cars or laptops, I also ask them how long they keep them. They keep cars five to seven years and laptops three to five years. But how long do you keep your building? Thirty to 50 years. So, they are bottom lining a 30- to 50-year investment while value-buying their three to five year purchases. They could just buy the cheapest laptop and trade it in every three years, but they don’t—they’re buying quality. There is an economic story that needs to be told.

Timeframes are interesting when you think about maintenance, too. How often do you maintain your car or update your laptop’s operating system? And how often do you check if your building is operating properly?

Commissioning was a huge fight for years because LEED was forcing people to do it. People were complaining that it was a $35,000 premium. Do you want to occupy your building without anyone checking to see whether it was constructed the way it was designed? It should be a default condition, not a premium for a high-performance building. Your fire system has to be inspected annually, but there is nothing like that for mechanical systems or lighting systems.

Another exercise I do with decision makers is to ask them: If you had a car delivered in pieces and you hired a mechanic to assemble it, what is the likelihood of that car being assembled to its peak performance? That’s what we’re doing with our buildings. We’re delivering pieces and parts and, while we have professionals on the jobsite, there’s no overview of the actual installed assembly to make sure it’s performing the way it’s supposed to perform.

Who should be responsible for commissioning or continuous commissioning? The building professional, the occupant, or the owner?

The first tier of commissioning is sending the engineers who designed the building in to make sure things were installed the way they were designed. The idea of continuous commissioning is to get an independent reviewer in to make sure things are working. It creates a feedback loop that we haven’t had for decades.
Architects and engineers haven’t been funded to do commissioning, and they’re finding out that some things are really hard to install in the field. With commissioning, you may find that no one seems to know how to put a particular damper into a particular duct so perhaps we should find an alternative. The feedback is beginning to make things better.

Between now and 2020, are there other things related to IEQ that must become standard practice?

The lighting world has to address the way we’re working today. We have a lot of buildings out there that are not up to date.

Thermal comfort has been bad for so long. We all know that the building is really cold or really hot and everyone assumes that’s life. That has to change. We have to be able to provide a band of comfort with fine-tuning that individuals can control. There are solutions out there.

Ventilation rates need to be examined. Now that air conditioning is becoming more common, people are saying, “Well, if I introduce ducts, I might as well seal the building.” If you seal the building, what is the ventilation rate you need? There’s a big debate going on about sealed buildings and ventilation rates. Research is showing that more outside air brought in is better unless you’re in a highly polluted environment, and it is also showing that operable windows are better unless you’re in a noisy or highly polluted environment. The solution is mixed-mode systems. There are things related to air quality that are coming down the pipe that will be really interesting for design professionals.

The U.S. is beginning to increase ventilation rates and the problem with that is that it typically comes with an energy penalty unless you do heat recovery. So engineers are doubling the ventilation but adding heat recovery to consume less energy in the process. Operable windows also are still a huge debate in the United States. Organizations such as Kaiser Permanente are looking to see whether operable windows make sense in hospital because they fundamentally care about the health and performance of the occupants.

What about technology such as CubeSensors that alert you if air quality or light levels aren’t optimal?

Those things are really exciting. You can get cheap sensors to pick up air temperature and light level, but getting a cheap sensor that picks up air quality is a lot harder because they tend to lose their calibration quickly. Perhaps mass production will make this possible. I can travel around the country with a temperature sensor, but I can’t currently travel with a CO2 sensor that’s viable and robust.

Going back to where we started, architects are going to need to learn metrics so they can look at a particulate matter score and know it is bad. They need to know the thresholds.

Since 2012, Hanley Wood has conferred with building industry experts to establish a timeline of critical goals and metrics that building professionals must establish and meet by the year 2020 in order to preserve our environment and meet large-scale goals such as those of the 2030 Challenge. Scroll over points in our on-going timeline to learn more about the path ahead in green building. Track our progress all year as the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council shares their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward these sustainable priorities and goals. This year's program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in conjunction with Greenbuild in New Orleans, and with a special Fall edition of ECOBUILDING REVIEW.