Cleaning the Air, The Importance of Improving Indoor Air Quality

While many architectural trends come and go, a consistent factor for modern building design is the improvement of health and wellbeing. With increased research on the levels of pollutants in indoor spaces, we’re expecting more from buildings in terms of how they support our bodies and minds. Here, Tony Walker, Technical Specification Controller at PPG Architectural Coatings, explains why indoor air quality is becoming a vital consideration for building design and how architects and designers can make sure their developments hit the mark.


According to a recent report commissioned by the charity Clean Air Day, nearly half of UK homes have high levels of indoor air pollution . The report analysed 47 homes across Birmingham, London and the home counties and concluded that a fifth of these properties contained high levels of formaldehyde, which can be damaging to health, causing headaches and tiredness. In fact, 13 per cent of the homes exceeded the World Health Organisation guidelines for formaldehyde, while almost half had unhealthy levels of other Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).

Reports suggest that we are spending more and more time indoors, with most of us spending no more than one tenth of our time outside, which is a frightening revelation . As modern lifestyles and occupations continue to draw us into the comfort of indoor spaces, environmental bodies are now encouraging architects and specifiers to revisit their normal practices. It’s becoming increasingly important for all parties involved in a building’s design to consider the extent to which the specified materials and products can affect indoor air quality. As a result of this, a growing number of architects are looking for solutions that not only meet their design needs, but also contribute to living and working spaces that support the wellbeing of occupants.

Taking a Stand Against Pollution

BREEAM, LEED and the International WELL Building Institute, which promote health and wellbeing in the built environment, are beginning to tackle the issue, now including indoor air quality within their assessments.

The concentration of VOCs presents a particular concern and has, therefore, received the most amount of attention in the battle against indoor air pollution. These harmful chemicals, including formaldehyde which is present in all houses and public spaces in varying concentrations. VOCs such as formaldehyde are emitted from everyday materials and products such as chipboard, carpet, fireboard, furniture and indoor fabrics, and BREEAM awards credit to those who can confirm concentrations are within defined guidelines at the post-construction phase. In fact, as of 2018, the BREEAM New Construction manual considers an Indoor Air Quality Plan a pre-requisite that must be completed at RIBA Stage 2.

The need for reduced levels of indoor air pollution has also gained the attention of the UK government, as demonstrated by their recent studies on intercity air quality and the introduction of preventative measures. Earlier this year, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan launched a series of air quality audits to help protect young children in the capital’s schools . Five nurseries took part in the air quality filtration studies, which proved that air pollution was significantly higher inside classrooms, leading to some institutions upgrading their facilities.

Additionally, as of July this year, The Institute of Air Quality Management has for the first time expanded its remit to cover issues related to indoor air quality; until this point, there had been no representative body dedicated to improving the issue .

As a result of this improved research and attention, architects and designers now have their choice of a growing number of techniques and products that can help facilitate improved indoor air quality.

Simple Steps to Cleaner Air

There are simple measures specifiers can take in order to neutralise high levels of polluted indoor air or limit the harmful emissions in the first place. Natural, untreated materials such as wood should be specified above synthetic fabrics, including carpets and rugs, as they are easier to clean. This makes it harder for the materials to harbour dust, and any potentially toxic particles that are emitted from VOC producers.

Ventilation is also a key factor to ensuring improved air quality. Central heating and tightly closed windows will only exacerbate the containment of VOCs, as outdoor air is needed to dilute any indoor airborne pollutants. Factoring in enough windows and doors into the design is key, but this may not suitable for every building; for example, health and safety regulations can often prohibit these design features in high-rise developments. In such circumstances, suitable technology that can help purify the air, such as HVAC systems, can be specified.

Some designers prefer to take a natural approach by incorporating biophilic design. Placing plants and flowers throughout a space helps to promote psychological wellbeing, but can also help to clean the air. Plants take in pollutants and CO2, while at the same time increasing oxygen levels, making them an effective natural solution. Taking this one step further, architects can even install ‘living green walls’ that act as a bio-filter.

In certain cases, implementing these measures simply isn’t practical. Therefore, more and more manufacturers are designing versions of products that would ordinarily be present in buildings, but are designed to have lower emission levels, with some even improving air quality. For example, flooring is now available that emits virtually no VOCs and captures dust particles from the atmosphere.

At PPG, similar innovations have been developed in the form of interior coatings. As part of our sustainability commitment, all of our emulsion paints are water-based and contain low amounts VOCs. However, we have gone one step further with Johnstone’s Trade Air Pure. This bio-based wall and ceiling paint neutralises up to 70 per cent of formaldehyde from the air as soon as it is applied and uses 100 per cent recycled packaging. Not only does this help architects and designers meet pre-construction requirements laid out by various environmental bodies, it can also improve the overall wellbeing of occupants.

A Cleaner Future

Judging by the positive developments that have been made over the past few years, we expect there will be an upwards trajectory for improved indoor air quality. As construction regulations continue to acknowledge indoor air quality within their guidelines and evaluations, we can hope that in time such considerations will become legally enforceable.

Until we reach this point, it is up to architects to embrace product innovations that can help sustain healthy levels of indoor air quality to comply with environmental best practice. This is one important piece in the puzzle of creating indoor environments that will improve the lives of occupants and contribute to a sustainable world for years to come.

Johnstone’s Trade Air Pure recently won Best Material Innovation at the 2019 Building Innovation Awards. For more information, visit:

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