Poorly ventilated buildings are allowed under Australian rules - time to fix that

Poorly ventilated buildings are allowed under Australian rules – time to fix that

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it must have been that poorly ventilated buildings can be a health hazard. Yet they continue to be built due to a weakness in the current rules.

Under Australia’s National Building Code, it is possible to build a nightclub for 1000 people without ventilation. And it is possible to build a school for 600 people without ventilation or a senior care center for 300 people without ventilation.

That’s because the code requires windows that can be opened for natural ventilation, but nothing requires them to be opened in traffic.

And where mechanical ventilation (fans or air conditioning) is required by code, it is possible to build a hospital where the air supplied to the patient rooms travels through the corridors back to the air conditioning unit. The recent design in Footscray is typical.

This means that visitors, patients and healthcare workers must travel through air carried by sewage from sick people to reach them.

Rules for water, few for air

The Code has rules to ensure the purity of water supplied through water pipes, but no rules to ensure the purity of air or a requirement to ensure a minimum standard of ventilation in buildings accessible to the public.

The revised Indoor Air Quality Guide is now available for consultation.

The Handbook is a guide to practice that goes beyond the bare bones of the Code.

The revisions include nothing to ensure that indoor air is free of particulate matter, carcinogenic gases such as nitrogen oxides and gasoline, pathogens such as bacteria, mold and fungal spores, or viruses – such as COVID-19.

Read more: Poorly ventilated schools are a super expansion event waiting to happen. It can be as simple as opening the windows

The code and manual state that buildings can be “deemed to comply” with air quality requirements if they provide one of two things:

  • “natural ventilation” using opening windows of 5% of the floor area

  • “mechanical ventilation” in accordance with Australian Standard 1668.2

However, no law or regulation prevents the construction of a naturally ventilated building that can be operated with the windows closed.

In the house, the opening and closing of the windows is under the control of the residents.

However, in a publicly accessible building, the occupants cannot normally control the windows, and they are often closed in winter or summer to regulate the temperature.

Particulate matter in the air kills millions

Acute respiratory diseases such as colds and flu cause an estimated 18 billion upper respiratory tract infections and 340 million lower respiratory tract infections worldwide each year, resulting in more than 2.7 million deaths and billions in economic losses.

More broadly, fine particles as small as 2.5 microns in width (PM 2.5) were responsible for more than four million deaths each year.

Read more: I live in an apartment. How can I reduce my risk of contracting COVID?

A single airborne viral disease, COVID-19, has now claimed between 17 and 25 million lives worldwide. Most of the transmission took place indoors.

Good ventilation and highly effective particle-absorbing filtration could have prevented much of this.

This should be set on top of national indoor air quality standards, which are gradually being applied to all buildings open to the public.

No parts per million standard

Ideally, standards would include upper limits for all contaminants up to and including 2.5 microns in width.

These contaminants include bacteria, viruses, pollen and spores, as well as particles from smoke from forest fires, vehicles and combustion processes.

Ventilation should also be sufficient to ensure that gaseous contaminants generated by building contents and internal activities remain at safe levels.

Relatively inexpensive and reasonably accurate hand-held devices are now available to measure contaminants and could be used to monitor compliance.

Portable CO2 meters are not expensive.

Schools should come first.

Many schools run by the state and Catholic education systems suffer from massive shortfalls in capital expenditure, which contrasts with the Rolls-Royce provisions at many high-fee private schools.

Almost all public and boarding schools operate in buildings in which heating, ventilation and air conditioning supersede natural ventilation.

These systems usually only recirculate the air, in the worst case they pollute it in the case of flue gas heaters. Teachers should not be put in a situation where they have to choose between thermal comfort and good ventilation.

This should not mean that the windows are set to always be open. It should mean that the building is safe even if the windows are closed.

It will cost money, but the benefits to the children will likely outweigh the costs.

The revision of the Indoor Air Quality Guide is an opportunity for the Building Code Board to begin reforming the code to properly address health rather than continuing to kick the can.

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