Healthy and safe indoor spaces require the introduction of new ventilation technologies

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Building ventilation should be developed in order to reduce health threats posed by pandemic waves. This would also require changes to building regulations.

Coronavirus is constantly changing both our world and also our understanding of how respiratory infections spread. Vaccines are the most important single counteractive measure, but their availability, effectiveness and long-term viability against new virus variants and pandemics are limited. Society therefore needs several different layers of protection in order to proactively reduce pandemic impacts and manage the overall risk. 

The pandemic has also made building owners, construction companies, maintenance companies and end-users aware of the importance of indoor space conditions: the virus spreads most effectively in confined spaces with large numbers of people and poor ventilation. During the pandemic, the importance of air hygiene – meaning effective ventilation, air purification, masks and respirators – has increased considerably as research data has accumulated. 
 

More efficient ventilation solutions are already available

Preparing for future pandemics and significantly reducing the risk of airborne respiratory infections may require a change in the way buildings are ventilated. The technologies that have already been brought into use, such as increased air volumes, demand controlled ventilation and more developed air distribution, may prove to have limited impact or to be unsustainable in terms of their cost and environmental impact. The creation of safe indoor spaces, even during a pandemic, requires the widespread introduction of new kinds of ventilation solutions. Although Finland is one of the most developed countries for ventilation technology, much still remains to be done.

‘The current legislation on ventilation in buildings does not provide optimal guidance for utilising new technical solutions to combat airborne diseases. For example, there is a lot of potential in the use of local ventilation solutions familiar from the industrial sector as well as space-specific booster systems that multiply the amount of clean air. This applies especially to the most critical points in the spread of infectious diseases, such as indoor spaces where a large number of people stay for long periods of time,’ explains Hannu Salmela, Research Team Leader at VTT.

Another example is mobile air purifiers, for which it would be important that the benefits obtained can in future be assessed on an equal footing with fixed engineering-based solutions. This would enable the setting of uniform requirements for air purifiers in areas such as noise levels and clean air delivery rate (CADR).

‘Coronavirus has changed the direction of indoor air research, putting safety at the core. The prevention of infections in buildings must be taken seriously. An example of this is the verification of ventilation effectiveness, which gets forgotten almost everywhere,’ says Piia Sormunen, Director of Business Development at Granlund.

The smart building of the future will anticipate, respond to and improve people's safety and ensure the health of the indoor environment. It will communicate with its users and tell them what the infection risks are for that particular space. It will also communicate with social systems regarding epidemics and data on the threats that they pose.

Creating safe and comfortable indoor environments is a societal issue

The benefits of introducing new technologies may in many cases outweigh the costs. In addition to reducing the risk of respiratory infections, there can be other significant benefits from solutions that reduce the health impact caused by fine particles, heat waves or building moisture damage or in other ways improve productivity and learning outcomes. 

Time and effort must be given, however, to assessing and demonstrating these benefits. This applies in particular to demonstrating the economic benefits and incentives for different actors in buildings of different types and age. A possible driver for this work would be the establishment of a multidisciplinary group of mutually complementary actors to develop indoor safety, support national decision-making and put decisions into practice. The work should also make use of advanced foresight tools, such as comprehensive risk assessment methods and future pandemic scenarios. 

‘Research-based solutions will help us find our way out of the current pandemic, fight future pandemics and create healthier, safer and more comfortable indoor spaces that support sustainable development. We have already initiated this work through an E3 project co-financed by Business Finland,’ Salmela continues.

Preparations for dealing with the impacts of respiratory infections must be carried out responsibly and in keeping with sustainable development. Good indoor environments must be shaped in such a way that they do not, as a rule, increase energy consumption and resulting greenhouse gas emissions.

‘Buildings must be durable and low-emission, and they must also be safe for people’s health. These objectives are not mutually contradictory if we use advanced technologies and continue innovating. At best, this will boost Finland’s international competitiveness,’ says Miimu Airaksinen, Senior Vice President of Development at SRV Group.

 

Excellence in Pandemic Response and Enterprise Solutions, the E3 project, a joint project between companies and research institutes, is seeking out the best ways to prevent the spread of viruses and infectious diseases indoors. The solutions will provide society with the means to remain operational during pandemics. The project involves 22 companies that represent a wide range of roles in the value chain for providing healthy and safe indoor environments.


 

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Hannu Salmela
Hannu Salmela
Research Team Leader

Traditional solutions for construction and the built environment are no longer enough as we aim at carbon neutrality and resource efficiency. We are moving in the direction of a flexible, energy-efficient, and smart built environment. With its help, future living will be carbon-free, and people will be able to live better lives.

Research expertise