Are Your Buildings Contributing to Poor Residential Health?

How to Develop a Successful Indoor Environmental Quality Plan for your Community


With the current economic climate, existing Senior Living Communities will be under increasing pressure to reposition their existing buildings including ongoing upgrades and maintenance to ensure that they are healthy and comfortable places to live and work. Applying green building principles with a concentration on Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) will have a long term positive effect on the residents and staff. To define the concept- Indoor Environmental Quality is the overall comfort of a building's interior space with regard to the comfort and health of its occupants and consists of multiple elements including: lighting, acoustics, thermal comfort, indoor air quality, ventilation, occupant control and ergonomics.

This concept is important as we spend an average of 90% of our time indoors with seniors spending an even greater amount of time indoors. In addition, indoor air typically contains a much higher concentration of pollutants than outdoor air, as much as 2 to 5 times more on average. Considering seniors often have a compromised immune system and have a much greater risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases these pollutants need to be addressed. When you look at IEQ from a business perspective, communities are facing potential insurance issues with regard to coverage of facility born injuries and aquired infections. As well, a community's payroll is the majority of operating costs. This is critical considerable amount, therefore maintaining and attracting qualified staff will become an issue as demand for senior living rises.

Inadequate or improper light levels can cause eye strain and headaches as well as disorientation, accentuating the affects of the againg eye within the resident population. Staff can also experience an increase in errors and a decrease in alertness which can both lead to low productivity. Exposure to natural daylight is also an important issue when discussing overall lighting, not enough can cause disruption of the circadian rythm and a lack of production of vitamin D. Controlling the amount of daylight is also important as too much can cause glare and too much heat. Acoustics are a very important aspect of the overall comfort of the residents and effectiveness of the staff. Poor acoustics can limit speech recognition by residents which between residents and staff can lead to errors, strain and irritability. Interruption of sleep quality can also be attributed to poor acoustic control; this can lead to psychological and physiological health risks. The ventilation can also affect comfort by not having enough fresh air introduced into a space therefore odors and pollutants can linger. Particulates which are suspended organic and inorganic particles in the air may cause short term eye, nose and throat irritation as well as increase risk of respiratory infections. Long term affects can lead to asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, emphysema and even heart or lung disease.These are a few examples of how inadequate indoor environmental elements have an impact on the comfort and health of its occupants and staff.

 Fortunately, Senior Living Communities can adopt an Indoor Environmental Quality Plan to address any current or future issues and provide a healthy environment to live and work. An IEQ Plan begins with the assembly of the Community’s Green Team and most importantly the identification of the Green Champion. This Green Champion can be appointed or be a volunteer who will then assemble all of the community’s stakeholders. The stakeholders are representatives from across the community who would collaborate to create the IEQ Plan, the stakeholders can be maintenance staff, cleaning staff, physical plant engineer, food service, nursing staff and even a resident representative or two. It is important to have representation from all facets of the community. The committee will create a Mission Statement and set guidelines for community operations. An integrated design process should be used to get all issues on the table and addressed from the beginning; this will afford a more comprehensive approach and end result.

The next step in creating an IEQ Plan is to conduct a Community Assessment to establish goals both short range and long term. It is critical to identify where the most exposure lies as well as what the low hanging fruit is – those issues that can be addressed quickly and with little to no cost and show immediate results to build momentum. The actual assessment will consist of a thorough review of all building systems to make sure they are working properly and efficiently and at minimum meet performance values as set by the building code having jurisdiction. The building envelope should be investigated for air and water leaks in addition to its overall thermal value. All building materials and daily use products should be examined to determine if any have known carcinogens or other toxins. Assess the overall lighting and acoustics of all spaces and identify problem areas. Identify all other sources of potential pollution and contamination such as adjacencies of fresh air intakes and the trash dumpsters or path of delivery trucks. Along with the assessment a decision making process should be established to take all the information gained and work it into the long range capital plan to suit the needs of the community.

Once the community assessment is complete, Control Measures need to be established as they will be the benchmark by which the success of the IEQ Plan will be measured. The control measures are to conform with the local building code and other accepted criteria for building performance. This may require that the community contact a professional such as a sustainable building expert with the knowledge and experience to aid in the development of these control measures. Control measures would consist of such regulations like the amount of air exchanges required by the building code and the recommended or required lighting levels for different use spaces within each community. Other measures would address issues such as the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) found in various materials such as paints, adhesives and flooring materials – they can even be found in daily use products. It is important to establish a purchasing program that eliminates toxins from products like make up, cleaning products and even food packaging. Gathering all this information can be tedious but necessary to enable the community to know where they are at. It is also important to note that each measure established must be coordinated with all the other measures as they will need to be employed in concert with each other otherwise you may have conflicts with the desired results.

The final act is to establish a system to monitor and document all findings, analyze and track information related to all the areas of the IEQ Plan; lighting, acoustics, thermal comfort, indoor air quality, ventilation, occupant control and ergonomics. Conduct post occupancy evaluations and share the trend information with the staff, residents and families. Create provisions for corrective action and address any issues immediately to show that the community is committed to the application of the IEQ Plan. Transparent accountability will help create a sense of ownership within the process and generate a positive outcome.

Content provided by: Donald K. Green, NCARB, AIA, LEED AP