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Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ), Who cares?

18 october 2017

Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ), Who cares?

Indoor environmental and building services specialist Leo van Capellen last July presented the paper ‘Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ): Who cares? at the conference Healthy Buildings 2017 (Lublin, Poland). In the paper he argues to give more attention to the indoor environment and to the interest of the building’s occupants. For his paper he used among other things data from our WODI-database. We asked Leo to share his story with our followers.


I’d like to start this story with a short explication of the illustration. I used it at the end of my presentation, when I asked my fellow indoor environmental specialists to put on their armour and conquer a place at the early building project table, in order to vigorously secure the health, well being and satisfaction of the building’s occupants.

After the presentation of my papers it led to firm debate with and between colleagues.  Not everyone initially was convinced of the necessity to underline the interest of the building’s occupants. They thought it is obvious that this interest is well secured in the building process. However, mostly this  is not the case.                      

It may be so that everyone is talking about healthy buildings, often combined with sustainability (read: saving energy), actually creating healthy buildings is another story.  

Buildings are intended to accommodate organisations or, better, people and their means of production. One would think that building design is focussed on people, around whom everything is supposed to revolve. But something quite odd seems to be the case. Benchmarking studies, such as CfPB’s WODI Post Occupancy Evaluations (POE) regarding work environment, show worryingly high scores of dissatisfaction on subjects such as indoor climate, air quality and acoustics. These scores have been present for many years. One would expect the latest WODI Flex studies regarding the IEQ in contemporary working environments to show a break with trends, but such break cannot possibly be identified.

In different design standards like EN 15251, Indoor environmental input parameters, the performance objectives in this standard show levels of occupants’ dissatisfaction and these are not to exceed 10 - 20 % PPD (Predicted Percentage Dissatisfied). Obviously a gap exists between what designers aim to achieve and what building occupants in general perceive about their work environment. The IEQ-gap, as I call it, is an interesting subject for further study. A few causes of this gap may be assumed:

  • Indoor Environment is a complex mixture of occupancy rate, building envelope, building material quality, HVAC installations and more; there is no coherent holistic approach at the earliest stage in the decision-making and design process.
  • The Indoor Environment specialist gets on board the project far too late; the tone of building design and budget has at that point already been set. There is no clear information or advice offered to decision-makers. In addition, also lacking is a sound IEQ-statement regarding the ‘building’s health’  at the initial stage (Project’s Brief), before a building budget has settled in the mind of the client.
  • More than ever, serious attention should be given to (environmentally) safe building materials. Chemical indoor air pollution is one other hidden cause of occupants’ complaints.
  • HVAC installations may in theory and practise be commissioned and made ready to meet requirements of functionality and performance. This very important activity however is often killed or marginalised under pressure from the last part of the planning’s timetable, the completion and delivery stage.
  • The term ‘completion day’ may suggest that the building is ready for use; this is far from being the case for HVAC installations. Even if these are commissioned according to the common standards, during a guarantee period of several years - a single year is absolutely inadequate - one has to wait and see if under different seasons and design conditions the building and its installations perform as anticipated and to what extent adjustments and improvements will be necessary. A proper after-closure phase is basically non-existent in most cases, not even in the legal sense.
  • Whether there are occupant complaints or not, in practise the Indoor Environmental Quality at the workplace level is never subjected to long-term measurement or monitoring for objectivation. Information (ambient room temperatures, etc.) derived from the building’s room control systems is highly inadequate to assess working conditions at any workplace level properly. Everything one knows about a particular workplace actually comes from the occupant’s perceptions (subjective).
    (At the conference I presented a second paper, Healthy buildings: IEQ objectivation by real time monitoring, regarding a workspace IEQ measurement and monitoring system that  I have developed.)
  • The trends in the universe of building procurement towards the adoration of ‘the market’, being the manufacturing-industry, give cause to fear that the concepts of ‘healthy buildings’ will not take root and flourish. The contracting authority, or its procurement consultant, which favours these market forces, is predisposed to argue that, at the early project stage, the thinnest possible project brief is sufficient; the qualitative interpretation can be left to the (general contractor) market. From today’s perspective that interpretation is dominated by sustainability thinking, which in fact is a derivative of building occupants’ health and comfort ambitions and not the other way around.
  • In a practical sense, the responsibility for a healthy building ends up in the hands of the installation subcontractor, who operates under the wings of the general building contractor. This subcontractor is manufacturing-industry again, which is not likely, considering the classical balance of power, to be able and willing to demand sufficient influence for preserving the building occupants’ ultimate interests.
  • Keeping buildings ‘in performance’ depends on the commitment of well-educated, trained and experienced specialists, from concept designers to field engineers. Due to dismissal and retirement, many experienced people have left the sector already and that process has not come to an end yet; the influx of young talent lags behind. This does not bode well for the long-term ‘health’ of buildings: will ambitions be achieved and, not least, sustained?  

Healthy construction project budget

The results of the CfPB WODI studies reveal that sufficiently satisfying the occupants, for whom the building is intended, is not self-evident. Which is remarkable, given the wealth of indoor environmental, building and installation sciences and the well-developed application and design practices.

A building in which people - the scarce future capital of organizations – can live and work healthy demands for an healthy construction project budget. No one would come up with the idea to leave out the foundation of a building. So why do we accept the lack of budget and facilities to support the health of our human capital? A health which translates into lower sick leave, better performance and so on.

Looking at all stakeholders in and around the building process, sadly enough only a single one may care in reality for the fate of the occupants. It is for this reason that an appeal to indoor environmental and building services specialists, building biologists and others concerned with a healthy living and work environment, is badly needed, so that they may show their powers and exercise substantial influence on the building process at the earliest stage.

Read more

  1. Van Cappellen L.W., Carrilho J.D., Gameiro da Silva M., Van Putten J., Smid B. (2017), ‘Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ): WHO CARES?’. Healthy Buildings 2017 Europe, July 2-5, 2017, Lublin, Poland, Paper ID 0190, ISBN: 978-83-7947-232-1.

  2. Van Cappellen, L.W., Carrilho, J.D., Gameiro da Silva, M., Van Putten, J., Smid, B. (2017), ‘Healthy buildings: IEQ objectivation by real time monitoring’, Healthy Buildings 2017 Europe, July 2-5, 2017, Lublin, Poland, Paper ID 0291, ISBN: 978-83-7947-232-1.


Send a mail to Leo van Capellen.