Poor air quality is fast becoming one of the biggest environmental concerns of our time. In the UK, air pollution is the fourth biggest threat to public health, falling in behind cancer, obesity and heart disease.[1] Globally, the picture is equally ominous. A 2019 study published in The Lancet Planetary Health linked 13% of global asthma cases directly to pollution,[2] and in the UK, asthma deaths have increased by a third over the last decade according to the ONS.[3]

In its Clean Air Strategy published earlier this year, the UK Government outlined a series of ambitious targets to minimise the societal effects of air pollution. This included reducing the economic impact of air pollution by £1.7 billion every year by 2020, and by 2025, halving the number of people currently living in areas that breach the World Health Organisation’s particulate matter guidelines.

In addition to our living spaces, the areas in which we work also have a huge role to play if we are to reduce the human health impact of poor air quality, given that a significant proportion of adult life is spent within the workplace. Though modern working conditions might be the best they’ve ever been, there is still progress to be made to ensure that individuals are as happy, healthy, and productive as possible in the built environment.

Air quality and comfort are correlated with human wellbeing and performance. Indoor CO2 concentrations above 1,000 parts per million (ppm) have been shown to result in a drop in productivity, and a concentration of above 2,500 ppm sees productivity sink further[4]. Low ventilation rates have also been shown to deliver up to a 9% dip in performance, as well as symptoms like headaches.[5] In addition to this, particulate matter – pollutants in the air such as dust and carbon – can get into the lungs and trigger health conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, and more serious diseases such as lung cancer.

Therefore, our buildings – and the way they operate – need to be human-centric, and human experience needs to become an integral part of the way we measure building performance. Unfortunately, many buildings in the UK were simply not built with human wellbeing in mind. Surprisingly, it isn’t always the oldest buildings that are at fault here, with many newer buildings reporting high levels of indoor pollutants and poor ventilation. This means that property management has a big role to play in ensuring that building performance supports the health and wellbeing of occupants.

Measuring the impact of buildings on humans has historically been very difficult to do, and this has led to a rise in sensor technology which continuously monitors the indoor environment. When this data collection is combined with occupant feedback, such technologies have the capacity to learn the optimum parameters for human comfort within a given space. This enables the technology to flag up when conditions are on the verge of falling into harmful or uncomfortable levels, so property managers can respond accordingly. Eventually, it can learn how to make adjustments in real time, linking up to building management systems.

We are beginning to see positive moves in the industry to recognise human experience as a measure of building performance. arbnco recently partnered with Arc Skoru Inc – a USGBC affiliated company – to incorporate the monitoring system, arbn well, into the sustainability performance and certification platform, Arc. The one-click integration now enables the automated flow of indoor environmental data and occupant feedback into the Arc platform, enabling building managers and owners to improve performance, increase operational efficiency and streamline certification.

This partnership means that human experience can be considered equally alongside other sustainable building parameters, such as energy efficiency and waste generation.

First and foremost, a building needs to perform well for the people occupying it. Prioritising human experience will result in healthier, happier and more productive employees, and can help to reduce employee illnesses and absences.

Further information

Find out more about the Arc platform here


[1] https consult.defra.gov.uk/environmental-quality/clean:// -air-strategy-consultation/user_uploads/clean-air-strategy-2018-consultation.pdf

[2] Achakulwisut et al, 2019, “Global, national, and urban burdens of paediatric asthma incidence attributable to ambient NO2 pollution: estimates from global datasets.” The Lancet Planetary Health, vol. 3, no. 4

[3] https://www.asthma.org.uk/about/media/news/press-release-asthma-death-toll-in-england-and-wales-is-the-highest-this-decade/

[4] Satish et al, 2012, “Is CO2 an Indoor Pollutant? Direct Effects of Low-to-Moderate CO2 Concentrations on Human Decision-Making Performance.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 120, no. 12

[5] Satish et al, 2012, “Is CO2 an Indoor Pollutant? Direct Effects of Low-to-Moderate CO2 Concentrations on Human Decision-Making Performance.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 120, no. 12 [and references therein]