Facilities (Campus Spaces)

Healthy Buildings and IAQ

Indoor Air Quality


Taking care of buildings has always been one of the more mundane aspects of institutional management. But that doesn’t mean this responsibility isn’t important, especially when it comes to health and safety. And given today’s focus on sustainability, the need to act in an environmentally friendly manner is paramount.

“Students and their families expect campus buildings to be healthy environments much in the same way they expect the campus grounds to be safe,” says Jennifer deHart, chief sustainability officer at Maine’s Unity College. At the same time, colleges and universities are intrinsically motivated to maintain healthy indoor environments given their effect on perceptions of prospective students, families and enrolled students. Healthy indoor environments also reduce risk and support an optimum learning environment.

“Mitigating mold, pests, asbestos and other hazards can be costly and disruptive,” she says. “Most importantly, our institutions recognize that healthy indoor environments are better for learning and working, resulting in fewer distractions and sick days.”


At SUNY Geneseo, measures taken to prevent poor indoor air quality include the following:

  • Ventilation is monitored and adjusted as necessary by facilities staff to maintain appropriate air exchanges per hour.
  • Maintenance is performed monthly on air-handling units.
  • Chemicals used by custodial staff are all green or have NFPA 704 ratings of 0 (hazard no greater than ordinary material) or 1 (may cause irritation).
  • Custodial staff are trained on use and amounts of chemical usage.
  • Concentrated chemicals used by custodial staff are diluted per national industry standards.
  • Spills of products are cleaned up immediately, and staff respond to odor complaints and perform indoor air quality investigations as necessary.


To the degree possible, prevention may the wisest strategy. “Since it’s extremely costly to remove hazardous contaminants from the air we breathe, the best practice is to avoid contaminating it in the first place,” says Al Niemi, director of occupational safety and health services at Michigan Technological University in Houghton. He notes that in commercial and institutional buildings, contaminants come from the building materials themselves, from heating and cooling equipment and from occupant activities, including materials stored and used during those activities.

water run-off contaminants


“Minimizing contaminants from all of these sources begins with a careful hazard analysis and risk management decisions that are documented and followed, whether it be during building construction or during operation,” he says. “Elimination of noncritical construction materials that have known health risks, and substitution with less harmful materials for materials that cannot be eliminated, are examples of construction decisions.”

Prevention may be more readily achievable with mold than with many other threats. According to deHart, this might include finding and eliminating sources of moisture infiltration or condensation. Strategies include weather-sealing the building exterior, repairing rainwater systems to get water away from the building and foundation, and tuning the HVAC system to reduce humidity in the system and resolve condensation issues. Too, indoor spaces prone to moisture, such as bathrooms, locker rooms and below-grade spaces, should be constructed or retrofitted with mold resistant materials.

She notes that small areas of mold can be killed using white vinegar, essential oils or borax, but the process is labor intensive. “Mold on a large scale should be managed by professionals,” deHart says. “Conventional mold remediation involves toxins such as chlorine bleach and fungicides but fortunately, green alternative products do exist at the commercial scale, and should be requested.”




Dealing with pests can be more complicated.

“Pests come in a wide variety, and there is no simple answer,” says Colin Booth, an associate at Sasaki, a Massachusetts-based planning and design firm. “However, tighter envelopes can go a long way.” Ultimately, he says, the “green” solution is to not use pesticides that are widely sprayed throughout buildings, despite this being the easiest and often cheapest solution, as these could contribute to significant long-term health issues.

At the State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo, the use of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices has been effective, according to spokesperson David Irwin. Preventive pesticide application is limited because the risk of pesticide exposure may outweigh the benefits of control, but when necessary, applications are planned for after hours and during the least amount of activity. Building ventilation is adjusted during outside pesticide application, and indoor measures include use of sticky traps, sealing areas where pests may enter buildings, maintaining clean dining and food storage areas, and removing trash and overgrown vegetation in areas near buildings.

Lead, Asbestos and Other Contaminants

Problems in dealing with lead and asbestos may be less common, but they can be among the most serious.

“Unlike mold and pests, lead and asbestos are inert materials that simply do not go away,” deHart says. “Where lead or asbestos are already present in the indoor environment, such as in old paint, tile or insulation, the priority is to limit human exposure.” Noting that few if any environmentally friendly handling methods exist, she says that surfaces containing asbestos or lead can be encapsulated in place, which may be preferable and less hazardous than stripping, grinding or blasting the materials off. Trained professionals must conduct any lead or asbestos abatement effort.

Other contaminants also pose challenges. They include everyday particulates such as cigarette smoke and vehicle exhaust, as well as allergens such as perfumes, pollen and dander, deHart
points out. Her campus has a no-idling policy, and smoking is prohibited within 25 feet of all college buildings as well as at all college-sponsored outdoor events. Other strategies she advises include placement of filters on outdoor-air intake vents and walkoff mats at entryways, and frequent surface cleaning. She adds that during construction, repair and replacement, institutions should have a policy that specifies only no- or low-VOC products.

Along with solid policies, retaining qualified staff and providing ongoing training are also keys to progress in this area.

“The facilities department needs to have a solid working knowledge of sources of contaminants and sustainable methods for managing them,” deHart says. “These front-line members of our campus community can become the green champions safeguarding student and employee health.”

Institutional leaders must stand behind facilities staff, she adds, and should understand the multiple benefits of healthy indoor environments.

“Leaders must then create the conditions to support health indoor environments,” she says. “This can be achieved through proactive policies, purchasing standards, and resources — both financial and human — to support green ongoing maintenance.”


Changing times. That’s what Sasaki associate Colin Booth points to when it comes to issues of sustainability. “LEED helped usher in a decade or so of raising everyone to a certain degree of broad understanding and speaking a common language, which influenced the design industry, the owners and facilities community, and many others,” he says. “While ‘green’ has addressed human health for some time, the topic is only now maturing to the point where we can begin to quantify and evaluate healthy environments.”

Booth cites two basic trends driving this change. One is an increase in the number of scientific studies providing hard data on the short- and long-term effects of our environments on health and productivity.

“This underscores a key reality,” he says. “People are our greatest assets and our greatest expenses.” As an example, he points to efforts to reduce carbon dioxide levels in buildings that while worthwhile, can also be very expensive.

A second trend is significant pressure in recent years for manufacturers to disclose the chemicals involved during the manufacturing of their products. This “transparency movement” promises to lead to higher degrees of overall sustainability through deeper understanding of materials.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management September 2016 issue of Spaces4Learning.

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