Another indoor air quality conundrum

Yesterday, the UK government announced that all remaining restrictions relating to Covid-19 are to be relaxed on July 19th. There will no longer be a requirement to work from home when possible (something that seems to have been gradually ignored by many organizations for weeks already) and schools can abandon bubbles and even mask wearing and social distancing.

To mitigate some of the effects of increasing infections and the removal of passive measures such as masks and distancing, better ventilation of buildings is encouraged.

One way to measure ventilation is by using a proxy measure of carbon dioxide concentration, and that is pretty easily achieved with IAQ monitors. Carbon dioxide concentration is a good proxy measurement for ventilation as the higher the levels of CO2, the fewer air changes are taking place. If CO2 levels are high, then increasing ventilation is a good option. Not only will it have an impact on virus transmission, but it will also improve cognitive ability and reduce the risk of drowsiness. High levels of CO2 are very much associated with poor productivity.

Awair Omni OAQ monitor

The easiest way to improve ventilation is to open some doors and windows. In most schools, that is the only way to do it – very few schools have complex HVAC systems that can adjust ventilation rates and still pass air through filters.

If you have an IAQ monitor that measures a range of parameters, such as particulates and VOCs as well as CO2, then as soon as you open a window, you might discover that other pollutants increase rapidly – and then what are you going to do? Balancing the health risks of the different contributors to poor IAQ is hard enough already, without the added complications of a nasty virus

Many schools, especially those in urban areas, as well as office buildings, are situated near busy roads and particulate pollution especially is known to be very damaging to respiratory health. Measurements of particulates near roads are sometimes way above safe limits and high concentrations of fine particulates can kill or seriously damage health.

Photo by thevibrantmachine on

So, here is the puzzle that has to be solved. Will opening windows to reduce the risk of ill health due to airborne viruses (such as Covid-19) cause a bigger impact on health by letting in a whole load of other pollutants, especially fine particulates?

There are, of course, some things that can be done to reduce the amount of particulates getting into buildings.

The first is to reduce them at source. In urban areas, the main source is traffic, especially traffic using internal combustion engines. The rapid increase in electric vehicles is certainly going to help, but it will take many years before they are off the roads completely, and the most polluting types of vehicle are the hardest, at the moment, to electrify (big goods vehicles).

Next, you can try and reduce the chances of those particulates getting inside a building with open windows. This is not going to be easy, but there are some effective measures, and they are mostly green.

Green walls, green screens, climbing and scrambling vegetation, trees and hedges are all capable of trapping large quantities of particulates on their foliage, and have an impact on urban heat islands too.

A Mobilane Ivy screen trapping particulates and keeping the noise down

Trees, hedges and plants like ivy are actually quite cheap too, and they are self repairing. They also reduce noise and look good too.

In the short term, using ventilation to flush out viruses (along with excess CO2) is going to be better than leaving windows closed and minimizing the ingress of fine particulates, but that is not a viable long term solution. Ideally, we should always have good ventilation to flush out viruses (it would be a good idea to use ventilation against all respiratory viruses, not just Covid-19), but if that is the case, we must do more to prevent other pollutants getting inside buildings. Vegetation is going to help a lot, but removing the source of those pollutants has to be the ultimate goal.

When did you last hear birdsong?

Today is the 22nd of December, 2020. Here, in tier 4 Kent, it is quiet. Schools have broken up for the Christmas holidays and, thanks to a new strain of the Covid-19 virus, we are experiencing a near lockdown. This means the roads, and the skies, are nearly empty.

Oddly, it is also 14 degrees Celsius, the rain has stopped (for a while at any rate), and it is warm enough to sit in the garden with a cup of coffee and contemplate life. As I sat, looking at the garden (and thinking about the jobs that need to be done there, as well as those indoor chores, and for work), I tuned into the sounds. A robin was singing, pigeons and doves were making there less tuneful noises, and sparrows were chirping.

Photo by Pixabay on

Around here, we also have small flocks of parakeets, which add an exotic touch to the area. Whilst they don’t have a pretty song, they do look stunning as they flash by.

That fifteen minute break cleared the mind in a way that a fifteen minute break on the sofa, or at the desk, couldn’t do. It allowed my eyes to focus on distant object (trying to find the tuneful robin in a holly tree), my sense of smell was treated to fresh coffee (which somehow smells better outside) mingled with the evergreen mossy smells of a damp garden and my ears tuned in to that bird. The sensory stimulation was congruent – there were no clashes.

A recent paper in Frontiers in Psychology (Minimum Time Dose in Nature to Positively Impact the Mental Health of College-Aged Students, and How to Measure It: A Scoping Review) investigated the research that has been carried out into how much time in nature is needed to positively impact the mental health of college-aged students.

It turns out that it isn’t very much. The authors sifted through over a thousand papers and carried out a detailed review of 14. The key finding of the review was:

These studies show that, when contrasted with equal durations spent in urbanized settings, as little as 10 min of sitting or walking in a diverse array of natural settings significantly and positively impacted defined psychological and physiological markers of mental well-being for college-aged individuals.

Making yourself aware

One of the questions in the WorkFree assessment tool asks “When did you last hear birdsong?” It is not a trick question, it is there to make you think consciously about the last time you were aware of the sounds of nature. It is there to remind you to take as break from your desk once in a while and go outside and just be in the moment. Tune in to your surroundings and let your senses be stimulated from every direction.

This is even more important in the winter. It is too tempting to just stay indoors. For home workers, it could mean that you don’t even get a daily walk from your front door to the car or station (which office-based workers have to do, regardless of the weather), and that means your world shrinks to a few square metres.

Being in nature does not necessarily mean being in the countryside

The study mentioned above refers to how much time in nature is needed to benefit mental health. The studies excluded long excursions into deep wilderness (which is just as well, given the scarcity of real wilderness in Southeast England) and concentrated on easily accessible nature. That means public parks and gardens as well as walks in the countryside, and almost everyone in the UK is within a few minutes walk of a public open green space, whether it is a pocket park, canal towpath or some woodland.

The benefits of being in nature, for even a brief period, are now well understood.

“The future belongs to the nature-smart – those individuals, families, businesses and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need”
Richard Louv

Richard Louv, in his book The Nature Principle, explains it really well. The whole book is very readable and I highly recommend it, but the chapters in the section called “Creating Everyday Eden” are especially relevant to the world of work, especially chapter 15, Nature Neurons go to Work. The book was written just as the benefits of biophilic workplace design were becoming understood – references to office design and indoor greenery abound, but the message is just as relevant now in times of home-based and hybrid working.

Why biophilic design is NOT about bringing nature indoors

It might be a tempting shorthand, but too many interior designers and interior landscapers talk about biophilic design in terms of bringing nature indoors. This is simply not true. The last thing you should be doing is to bring nature indoors – at the moment it is wet, windy, cold, muddy and the trees are shedding leaves by the ton. I don’t want foxes and crows gallivanting on my desk or slugs climbing my walls. If I want to be surrounded by nature – which I often do – I go for a walk in the fields or woods nearby.

Biophilic design is about improving wellbeing by using some of the cues of nature. As animals, we are as prone to being stressed in unnatural environments as any other species, which is why enclosures in zoos are designed to be as close to the animal’s natural surroundings as possible (and safe).

As a species, we have spent less than a 1% of our history as a domesticated animal (Professor Alice Roberts’ book, ‘Tamed, explains rather brilliantly why humans are the ultimate domesticated species – we domesticated ourselves). With that in mind, we need to create our enclosures to be as stimulating and stress free as possible.

We can do that by recreating natural stimuli in buildings – physical and mental – and that does include bringing some natural, or naturalistic elements into our buildings, but it doesn’t mean bringing nature indoors, because that is a bit messy.

For any advice on biophilic design, or if you are working on a project where biophilic design is an important element (and perhaps you are thinking only of plants), please get in touch.

From equinox to equinox: thoughts about the changing seasons

As a child, growing up in the 1970s in a village in the Lincolnshire fens, I was always very aware of the changes in the seasons – not just as the landscape went from black to green to gold and back again, but also because our village community, in common with thousands of others, maintained seasonal rituals that were rooted in farming practices, especially those in summer and autumn.

There was ploughing (with lapwings and gulls following the plough), and ploughing matches – yes, farmers competed (and still do) against each other to see who can plough the straightest furrow and they have special competition ploughs to do it.

The sugar beet harvest marked winter, with the rivers of mud on the roads and the stench of the local sugar factories (even from ten miles away, if the wind was bad, you could smell them).

Spring brought emerging crops and, a few miles to the East, the bulb fields and the annual Tulip festival in Spalding. At that time, coach tours from all over the country would visit the Lincolnshire bulb fields, which rivalled those in the Netherlands.

Midsummer was the time of village fetes, always held in a farm yard. Late summer brought the cereal harvest (followed, in those days, by stubble fires) and then, in the autumn came my favourite – the harvest festival.

Even as someone who has never been remotely religious, there was always something special about seeing the mountains of fresh produce and specially-baked loaves (made to look like wheat sheaves) adorning the village church. Harvest festivals with their optimistic hymns and harvest suppers were a very obvious reminder that the food we ate came, almost miraculously, from the land around us, grown with real expertise.

Photo by on

I studied Agricultural Botany at university, and worked in agricultural research for several years – that certainly kept me in touch with natural cycles. Then, I changed track and entered the world of workplace design and interior landscaping. After a quarter of a century embedded in offices, the seasons were almost obliterated from day-to-day thought (apart from the odd day of snow disruption).

In fact, as an interior landscaper, putting plants into buildings makes one acutely aware that the insides of buildings don’t have seasons – it is the lack of seasonal variation that determines the types of plants that can thrive indoors – those that are adapted to near constant light and heat (and that will be the subject of another post).

However, things have changed.

This year, with all the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have been working from home. I don’t think that I was alone in spending more time noticing and appreciating the world around. Many of us were treated to an especially long spell of good weather, starting almost as soon as lockdown began – it was if it was a small compensation for the chaos going on around.

Regular walks around the fields near where I live have been a bit of a revelation. From equinox to equinox I’ve noticed the growth and ripening of crops, the blossoming of wild flowers, more butterflies than I can remember seeing in years and the changes in birdsong as the summer progressed. As we enter autumn, the hedgerows are heavy with berries and the fields have already been seeded with next year’s crops.

The pulse of nature is not only noticeable from the countryside. In the UK, we are very lucky that our urban areas are generally well provided with public parks and gardens, and these provide very necessary spaces for people to gain the benefits of fresh air and sunshine, as well as to appreciate nature. Indeed, many of our parks are richer in wildlife than the countryside.

Public park. Photograph by George Freeman

The forced pauses in our routines give us time to reflect and gather our thoughts. Noticing the changes in seasons – the result of the inevitable progress of the Earth orbiting around the sun as it has done for over four billion years – has provided me with a very necessary reconnection with nature and the passage of time.

350 shades of green

Over the last three months, as spring has turned to summer, and the weather in my corner of England has been spectacular, I have been acutely aware of how the landscape has been transformed by the colour green. The green things in the landscape have also changed, from the vibrant fresh shades of new foliage, to darker greens as leaves mature, or from the deep greens of cereal crops as they begin to ripen towards yellower shades and ultimately to golden brown.

The human eye is especially sensitive to green. The shades that we name as green fall right in the middle of the visible spectrum and extend from the citrusy yellow greens to minerally blue greens. I have been told that humans can distinguish as many as 350 shades of green (although that may be an artefact of language – how do we really define green, especially at the extremes of what might reasonably be described as green?)

How many shades of green?

Green is a hugely symbolic colour too. Pagan religions from all over the world have symbols, such as the Green Man of North European folklore. These often represent both the power of nature and its sustenance. Green is sometimes related to magic and the presence of spirits too.

There was even a time – within living memory – that green cars were regarded as unlucky (at least that is what my grandmother told me. She was aghast when my father bought a mint green car in the 1970s, but that might just have been a comment on his taste).

Rosslyn Chapel Green Man – photo by Johanne McInnes. (licence CC by 3.0)

More positively, green represents sustainability and environmental responsibility. Green also means progress. Green for go is the universal convention for traffic management and for a safe state of affairs.

All of this symbolism can be directly linked to the colour’s ubiquity, and that is also directly related to the life giving quality of a green pigment called chlorophyll, without which, no complex life on Earth would be possible. You can almost feel the force of life coursing through green spaces in nature.

Green workspaces

Workplaces have been given the green light to re-open as the worst of the pandemic eases. Some have taken the opportunity to go green: plants screens and moss walls are being specified to ensure physical distancing and aid with pedestrian traffic flow.

Other workplaces are embracing the environmental opportunities that are afforded by allowing more people to be home based (for part, or even all of the time), reducing commuting time, emissions and energy bills and being available for those that cannot work anywhere else, or for when face-to-face collaboration is unavoidable. This might even lead to a significant reduction in office space occupancy, as this article in the Guardian recently explained.

Some are looking to a more human-centred future. Instead of offices being a place to go for all work, they might be hubs for collaborative effort: occasional places that are both sociable and productive.

Workplace managers are going to have to consider whole new interactions of disciplines in the very near future: space, furniture, technology, connectivity, restoration and recuperation, and new approaches to managing people.  All will need repackaging to create work environments that people want to use.

Unfortunately, a large number of workplaces are doing their best to recreate the pre-pandemic state, but with perspex and cubicles. A look at some of the FM web sites and magazines shows just how uninspiring some of these places can be. High screens, often in shades of grey, blocking not just the view of a colleague, but preventing views of the broader interior landscape or even through a window. Such spaces are, no doubt, hygienic, but they are also emotionally sterile too.

Maybe, our new-found appreciation of nature and a greater understanding of how we, as animals, respond to the rhythms of the seasons can help us create better working environments as a result.  

In a fragile economy, those organizations willing to invest in creating more humane working cultures will be in the best place to attract and retain eager and talented people.  Fortunately, those investments need not be huge in terms of cash and capital, but instead may require taking a little time to learn and reflect on what has been learned.

If you would like more detailed advice on creating workspaces that are humane and effective, please get in touch.