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Air quality testing in your home

This month, the WorldGBC kicks off work on the third Better Places for People campaign report, this time focused on residential buildings. Following on from our report on Health, Wellbeing and Productivity in Offices (2014) and Retail (2016) we will soon deliver guidance and share case studies from Green Building Councils and their members around the world who are working towards building, leasing and occupying healthy residential buildings.

To get a feel for the process, the WorldGBC Toronto office engaged an air quality testing company, Air Quality Canada, to test the air quality in a high-rise rental condominium and to teach us about the process and the results. We then spoke with the renter of the home to determine their experience living in the unit.

The Three E’s

The Residential Working Group aims to build the business case for healthy residential buildings, with a focus on factors that we call the three E’s:

The first step in examining the three E’s is environment – testing for indoor environmental quality (IEQ). The second E looks at how occupants experience their home. The final E requires the examination of economic factors, for example whether incorporating healthy building features in their home will raise property value.

Testing the home

We started the day in a 5-year old 42-storey condominium building right in the heart of downtown Toronto. The unit is on the 18th floor, has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and approximately 900 square feet of indoor space and 150 square feet of outdoor space.

Daniel from Air Quality Canada measured for total volatile organic compounds (TVOC), carbon dioxide (CO2), temperature and relative humidity, with three samples taken from inside the unit and one outside as a control.

The results

The measurements for the home are shown in the below table, along with some general “comfortable” guidelines for each.

All of the results fall under the comfortable or safe levels, but the CO2 levels were almost double that of the outside air. To consider the impact of these air quality tests on the renter, we asked him a number of questions.


WorldGBC: “How do you feel in your home?”

Renter: “I have automatic temperature control, so I generally feel comfortable and that seems to be consistent with the results of the testing. I don’t know if I’d feel any different if the CO2 levels were higher or lower though – how would I know? What would I do?”

WorldGBC: “What if I told you that elevated CO2 levels can lead to lower productivity, specifically lower cognitive ability, drowsiness, and inability to perform certain tasks? Do you think that knowing the air quality is helpful to you as a renter?

Renter: “Well I didn’t actually know that about CO2 levels. I’m a marathoner so my ability to be alert and not drowsy is important, especially if I’m training or about to race, but also if I’m doing work from home. I had no idea that could affect me.”

WorldGBC: “Well you’re still in the comfortable and safe range – there shouldn’t be a significant impact.”

Renter: “Well how would I know? I am not monitoring every day.”

WorldGBC: “True – do you think knowing the air quality measurements would help you with your training, or say, if you were working from home?”

Renter: “Well yeah, I guess I can open a window to get more of the outdoor air inside. If I knew the CO2 level is high, maybe I could also leave my condo to do work.”

WorldGBC: “All other things being equal, do you think you would consider moving to another unit or building where you could see the air quality in real-time? Would you pay more for that?”

Renter: “Well, I guess I would. If I was looking for a new unit, if I was told that the air quality was consistently monitored and I could see it in real-time, that would definitely be a selling point. I would want to know if there was a problem which could affect my training and/or work. But then I’d like to be able to do something about it too – I’d pay more for a window I could open or the ability to add more ventilation.”

The heart of the matter

It’s clear the renter here was not fully aware of potential air quality issues and how they may affect his health. His indoor CO2 levels were within the normal range, but if they were to become elevated, he would have no idea.

As the research has shown, elevated CO2 can affect productivity – something that wouldn’t help him in his work or athletics. He implicitly assigned a value to the knowledge of his air quality by saying he would consider moving or choosing a unit with real-time air quality monitoring. The real problem may be that, as a renter, he may have little control over remediating elevated CO2 levels.

He could open a window, but some high-rise buildings don’t allow that. He could also contact his building manager in order to increase ventilation, but that request may not be heeded. But if the connection between indoor air quality and human health was more well-known to people, perhaps building managers, owners, and rental agencies would be encouraged to offer air quality testing services in order to drive business or to consider indoor air quality when building, selling and leasing residential units.

What’s next?

As the Better Places for People campaign kicks off work on healthy residential buildings, we aim to bring to light the links between the environment, experience, and economics of your home, so stay tuned for much more!

WorldGBC and Better Places for People wants to thank Air Quality Canada in Toronto for providing the air quality testing. For more information on single- or multi-family home air quality testing, please contact them at +1-416-858-2866.