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How do you know if your office is healthy?

Australian Ethical HQ. Image: Trent Blackmore, AR2
Australian Ethical HQ. Image: Trent Blackmore, AR2

This excerpt from The Fifth Estate’s Healthy Offices ebook shows that when attempting to gauge whether an office is a truly healthy space, both qualitative and quantitative data are equally important.

How do you know if your building is healthy? The first step is to ask the people working in it, according to CitySwitch program manager for WA Phill Raso.

“That alone will provide you with a wealth of information.”

Because of the subjective nature of many healthy building criteria – such as thermal comfort – gauging what occupants think is a key step. How does a worker feel in the building?

“A sensor can tell you what the temperature is but only a person can tell you whether that is the right temperature for them,” Raso says.

NABERS program manager Carlos Flores agrees that asking people’s opinions is crucial.

“There are elements when you talk about thermal comfort, indoor air quality, acoustics and lighting, that are better assessed by asking people how they feel about that component.”

The University of Sydney’s IEQ Lab in conjunction with the University of Technology Sydney is leading the way on qualitative data research with BOSSA (Building Occupants Survey System Australia), which integrates with all the major rating tools on the market.

The survey rates IEQ from an occupant’s perspective, covering indoor air quality and air movement, spatial comfort, noise distraction and privacy, connection to outdoor environment, building image and maintenance, individual space, thermal comfort, visual comfort, and health and productivity.

You can do a great survey – and then take some action

Healthy and happy working environments is the vision of the Perth-based team behind Rate My Space, another qualitative assessment tool that came out of a university research project examining how to improve the energy performance of buildings while maintaining healthy working environments.

Founder Dr Samantha Hall evaluated numerous offices while completing her PhD in sustainable buildings and discovered some pretty poor health environments.

“Often companies don’t realise and staff don’t realise,” she says. “I thought there has to be a better way of actually getting this out because you get so much insight with occupancy surveys, but it’s still not really mainstream.”

Enter Rate My Space – an analytic platform that engages staff, collects feedback about the physical environment and turns it into actions for property and human resources teams to improve health and productivity.

The tool won a 2015 Curtin University innovation award and was selected under competitive merit for the 2016 Curtin accelerate research commercialisation program.

Following the program, Curtin commissioned the Rate My Space team – which includes Hall, an architect, an organisational psychologist and a technical developer – to trial the tool on campus. The team built the technology and surveyed more than 1000 office-based staff.

“We used to do this on a building by building scale,” Hall says. “With Rate My Space we wanted to grow this. What we are looking at is more of a portfolio approach – instead of going into one building and doing one project, we did 66 buildings.

“And really, for Curtin University, it was one of the most successful surveys that has ever been run on the campus.”

An intense engagement process including offering incentives was used to reach individuals. Participants received a link and jumped online to rate their space. In return, they received a personalised feedback report including tips for improving their working environment.

“We knew that staff were a little bit sedentary in most offices so we developed a ‘walking meeting map’ for staff for the campus,” Hall says. “Just ways of actually engaging not just with the organisations but with all the individuals in these spaces as well.”

Behind the scenes, the team turned the data into actionable insights for the property team.

“We have given some key insights in each building on the things that need the most attention,” Hall says. “And not just building by building but across the whole portfolio.”

The information will go into the university’s strategic asset management plan and will also be used to brief consultants on future works.

Hall plans to spend the next year growing the team and the technology.

“We have some interest from other universities, some large corporates, portfolio owners – even high-rise residential and schools,” she says.

Hall believes Rate My Space is entering a growing market.

“We are starting to get consumers that are more aware,” she says. “With the standing desk, people are suddenly understanding the physical impacts that come from sitting all day. The growing market is coming not just from companies wanting to do something about it but from staff as well.

“If you can start to identify just a couple of things in your building and change them it can contribute to your bottom line because you’re able to get more out of your staff.

“We want people to just love their space and enjoy going into their work environment.”

Measurement of IEQ is finally coming around the bend

Unlike energy, where data has been relatively easy to collect from energy meters, and then used to make decisions regarding management and optimisation, the indoor environment space has in the past suffered from a lack of data.

Flores says while a lot of work has been done on energy, water and waste efficiency, indoor environment quality hasn’t had as much attention placed on it until the last 2-3 years.

Part of the story regarding the surge in interest in healthy buildings is around the technology now coming online that makes it much simpler to actually measure the elements of indoor environment quality.

“The more we can turn data into information, the better we’re going to manage our buildings,” Flores says. “And this is an area that historically has had much less data than energy.”

NABERS has its own indoor environment tool, NABERS IE  but it hasn’t been easy to get off the ground. Flores says that’s had everything to do with the lack of data available.

“Obviously we’re in a transitional phase, but if you think about it, in the long term the NABERS Energy ratings have been much easier to do things with and deploy into the market and build policy around because we didn’t have to deal with the metering side of things. There were utility meters and the data was there.”

The problem in the indoor environment space has been that there’s been very little data, and it’s been very low quality.

“So we had to start with: how can we create a system to first of all measure this in a consistent manner, and that’s been obviously a bottleneck for the whole indoor environment quality industry.

“We’ve had to focus on, ‘How do we measure this in the first place?’ A lot of the solutions is basically the analog to an energy meter – creating an instrument that is relatively straightforward for anyone to operate.”

There are a few solutions now on the market.

SAMBA

One tool, developed by the University of Sydney’s IEQ Lab, is SAMBA, which stands for Sentient Ambient Monitoring of Buildings in Australia.

The system monitors and display building performance against a range of indicators, including air speed, temperature, relative humidity, particulates, VOCs, formaldehyde, acoustics and lux levels. It incorporates a range of benchmarks against which data is compared, such as the ASHRAE targets for CO2 levels.

The SAMBA project has been spearheaded by the University of Sydney’s Professor Richard de Dear.

While the data is still being collected and processed, Professor de Dear said that it’s already revealing some interesting insights.

“We’ve only been building this database for a relatively short period of time, but an observation has jumped out at us. And that is on thermal comfort,” he says.

“ASHRAE chapter 8 on thermal comfort has been around for decade. It predates me, that’s for sure. Yet we’re finding that buildings are operating below the threshold of [predicted mean vote] recommended in that standard.”

De Dear says it is an interesting finding because there is an “energy penalty” for performing outside of these levels.

“So I’m still perplexed as to why it’s so common.”

Flores praises SAMBA’s ease of use.

“You don’t have to be a scientist with 10 years of experience to operate the device. It makes measurement much easier so we can now focus and put a lot of time and effort into how do we improve this place, not just measure.

“I’m really excited about that. The faster and easier measurements become, the more time we can spend on the real problems.”

Using sensors and IOT more for engagement and operations

SAMBA is currently being trialled in a number of offices around Australia. Chris Nunn says AMP Capital is one of the companies participating.

“We’ve got 60 of those sensors and we’re deploying them in six buildings – 10 sensors per building.

“So we’re measuring [the IEQ parameters] in the space and sharing that information with our tenants and talking to them about optimisation. Actually, most of the results are quite good, so it’s a validation that the IEQ in some of our offices is at the top of the spectrum.”

AMP Capital is now working with Sydney Uni on how to use its collected data.

“So it’s not automatically feeding into the BMS and making control adjustments, though that is the long-term trajectory of where we’ll go,” Nunn says.

“I think we’ll have wide deployment of Internet of Things enabled sensors in the space that will feed back into building management systems in the future.

“This is probably an insight into the future direction of our industry. The deployment of these sensors has traditionally been in central plant equipment, air handling units and in plant rooms, but we’ll see a wider deployment into spaces of this health and wellbeing, Internet of Things, big data analytics, all come to the fore and enable the information coming out to be turned into something decision-relevant for engagement and operations.”

A richer insight into achieving comfort

The trial will establish how to co-optimise energy and comfort.

“So one of the things AMP Capital is doing with the sensors to see if we could use seasonal set points that will save us energy – so running the building slightly warmer than the conventional 22.5°C±1.5-2°C that you might typically set.

“You might run it at 23°C in summer because people are dressed for warmer weather; you might run it at 22°C or even 21.5°C in winter when people are dressed more warmly.

“Seasonal set points have been around for a long time but it’s only recently that we’ve had these sensors that we can deploy in the space to ask, ‘Are those comfort conditions what’s actually being experienced by our customers in the space?’ and run things like the BOSSA survey quarterly as well to gauge customer sentiment (see below).

“So you’re getting a much richer insight into people’s experience with space, and I think that’s a really good thing.”

Hux – a cheaper and quicker alternative and a new frontier opens

Another tool getting some traction in the market in Hux, which has a goal of making it cheaper and easier for people operating buildings to optimise their IEQ.

The technology is an Internet of Things-based system – a network of distributed sensors that communicate wirelessly together and aggregate over the cellular network, storing data in the cloud where analytics are performed and then presented via a web portal.

The tool measures occupant amenity elements like temperature, daylight and humidity, which have follow-on consequences for energy efficiency.

Recent installations include the City of Melbourne and University of Melbourne.

Hux co-founder and chief executive Rhys Sullivan says advances in technology and cuts in costs mean that non-premium buildings are now able to implement these solutions. He says Hux can act as a “poor man’s [building management system]” for the 90 per cent of buildings that don’t have a BMS.

“A big goal of ours is to start seeing all of these other [non-premium] buildings managed a bit more.”

NABERS’ Carlos Flores says when NABERS IE was updated a couple of years ago, one of the thing built into it was the capacity for the tool to use data from these ongoing monitoring solutions coming onto the market..

“So absolutely, we’re definitely very keen to not only use those measurements, but also to be an agent in driving that sector of the industry,” Flores says.

“We’re going to see a significant increase in the number of things we can do [due to technology advancements]. It will open the door to the next frontier in sustainability performance.”

The perfect mix

In the end, good measurement is about having both quantitative and qualitative data.

“The measurements tell you things people do not necessarily perceive. For example, when you talk about formaldehyde, it can be a pollutant and problem at levels that are much lower than the level when you can smell it. That’s why it’s really important to do measurements,” Carlos Flores says.

“Just because you can’t perceive it, it doesn’t mean it’s not going to be an issue.”

The measurements also complement the subjective analysis.

“If a lot of people say they have an issue with thermal comfort then you can go into the measurements and see if a problem can be identified.

“If you can’t, you can go back and ask more detailed questions to find why people are uncomfortable.”

CitySwitch program manager WA Phill Raso says that once you have qualitative and quantitative data, you can work with your environment rather than against it.

“It’s okay to have variations in temperature, light or sound levels. In fact, that’s great! If you allow people to be mobile, they can choose from a range of conditions that suits them in that moment. You have to measure and monitor though, so you’re not leaving these things to chance”.

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