Clearing the Air

Having the Facts on Indoor Air Quality Can Help Brokers Breathe Easier.

Environmentally related problems such as poor indoor air quality (IAQ) can have a significant impact on a building's value. Lower market value or a lease rent reduction are two likely scenarios that can occur once an unsolved IAQ problem becomes known or a building is tagged with "sick building syndrome" (even though the problem may have been cured).

If an IAQ problem occurs in a property or space already leased and occupied and the landlord controls the HVAC system, equally unhappy and potentially expensive situations exist: the threat of legal action by the tenants or a decision not to renew leases. As word gets around, other prospective tenants-possibly because of their own potential liability-will not want to place their employees in what may be an environmentally unsound building.

No building owner or property manager should ignore a complaint of poor IAQ. Overcoming a nasty reputation of a sick building is very expensive in lost rentals, lost tenants, and possibly lost buyers. In addition, there can be high marketing and public relations costs to overcome the bad image even after resolution of the IAQ problem.

The best and least-expensive route for a building owner is, of course, proper and focused preventative maintenance to prevent poor IAQ, and swift action in the event that an IAQ problem occurs.

Types of IAQ Problems
There are two types of IAQ problems: location and source. Location IAQ problems are a part of the physical building and its equipment or result from failure of the management to provide appropriate preventative maintenance. Source problems are generally items brought in from outside the building, and their use by the occupants creates IAQ problems.

These two causes are the basis of an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) proposed regulation of location IAQ and a proposed EPA study of source-control IAQ. The competitive marketplace and an informed commercial real estate community can force owners to apply preventative maintenance to prevent location-based IAQ problems, because it is clearly an economic disadvantage. However, source control requires a national research emphasis and action to assure high IAQ.

Location Control
Location issues usually involve poor maintenance, such as failure to change filters, thereby blocking air flow and causing carbon dioxide (CO2) build-up. Another location issue is living organisms such as bacteria or mold spores in air-handling systems, which require identification and an appropriate microbiological control.

Preventative maintenance can prevent these problems. For instance, bacteria and mold grow in moisture-standing water, moisture from the heating or air conditioning system's untreated condensate, or cooling-tower water. To prevent organisms from flourishing and entering the ventilation system, chemically treat the water and condensates, use microbiological paint and antiseptic washes on equipment, remove standing water or wet fabrics near air intakes, and use correctly sized filters.

In a similar vein, mold, dust, and bacteria grow and accumulate in dry, dirty ducts; fan rooms; and other locations of the building's air-handling system. Prevention methods include periodic vacuuming of ducts, antiseptic cleaning and use of anti-bacteriological paint on air-handling system components, removal of extraneous stored materials from fan rooms and air-handling areas, and, again, using and changing appropriately sized filters on a regular basis.

Tenant Construction. Tenant improvements in a vacant suite on an occupied floor can create location-based IAQ problems for other tenants. A few preventative measures can help avoid the majority of air offenders.

  • During construction, the supply and return air vents should be blocked to prevent dust from entering the ventilation system and affecting other tenants.
  • After construction, all new and existing supply and return air ducts should be vacuumed-the latter to remove years of previous dust and dirt buildup.
  • Painting, wall covering, and carpet gluing should be done in the evening or during other non-business hours to avoid the initial and heaviest odors of wet paint, new vinyl, and glue while other suites are occupied.

Source Control
An excellent example of source control is controlling smoking in buildings. Secondhand tobacco smoke is a carcinogen, a significant health risk to building occupants, and a potential liability to employers and owners. It is the most common source of tenant IAQ complaints, and market experience in the last decade has shown that buildings filled with secondhand smoke drive away prospective tenants. Thus, it is in everyone's best interest to keep secondhand smoke out of the building's HVAC system.

Other IAQ source control problems are carpet glue and fibers, vinyl wall covering, copy machine and computer printer toner, perfume, bad breath, body odor, paint, microwave oven and other cooking odors, food products, cleaning compounds, floor and nail polish, floor strippers, bathroom odors, paper fibers, window cleaning fluids, furniture polish, residual coffee and cream in dirty cups, sweaty or wet clothes stored in the office, carpet mildew, and outside odors from roofing tar, asphalt paving, exhaust fumes, garbage, and similar scents entering the building through the ventilation system.

Tenant-Created IAQ Problems. Source control IAQ problems often may be caused by the tenants and not the building. Perhaps there are too many people in an office originally designed for fewer occupants, causing a buildup of CO2 and a feeling of general drowsiness. Perhaps an advertising agency is using fixative on a presentation drawing that is triggering an allergic reaction in a neighboring employee.

Most likely the IAQ complaint will come into the building management office, even if the complaining tenant caused it, and these problems need to be treated just as any other IAQ complaint. Use the systematic approach to determine the cause. After management determines the cause, it needs to inform the tenant that the tenant (and not the building itself) is causing the problem. Lease language or common sense will assist management in arriving at a solution to this usually temporary condition.

Symptoms Caused by Poor IAQ
Body aches, headaches, asthma attacks, itchy or teary eyes, coughs and sniffles, feelings of drowsiness, or fainting are examples of IAQ ill effects caused by either location or source-control problems. Legionnaire's disease (named after the convention in Philadelphia where the phenomena was first noted) is a rare example of a location symptom, caused by bacteria carried into the air-handling systems.

Though building owners or managers should take all IAQ complaints seriously, they should also realize that not all symptoms are related to IAQ. During the flu season, for example, people may complain about the ventilation system, when the real problem may be early symptoms of a flu virus. Tenants overheating their spaces, humidity variations, or overcrowded office space can also create false symptoms.

Dealing with Tenant IAQ Complaints
Owners or managers must immediately respond to IAQ complaints to assure the tenants that a systematic, thorough procedure is in place to solve IAQ problems. Steps to take include:

  • Continuous, specific communication with the tenant registering the complaint;
  • Interviews of affected persons;
  • Documentation of steps taken to identify the cause and cure the problem;
  • Communication with all tenants acknowledging the problem and the speedy solution to it.

The rapid, documented pursuit of a solution to IAQ complaints is the most rational course of action for building owners and managers. To do less is to risk expensive and time-consuming legal action, significant tenant dissatisfaction, tenant employee work stoppages (the cost of which the tenant will expect the owner to reimburse), and possibly a significant loss in the building's economic value. In the event of IAQ litigation by a tenant, documentation of preventative maintenance and steps to track an IAQ problem are critical evidence that support an owner.

Inspecting for IAQ Problems
No one advertises IAQ problems, but the astute broker or agent can discover whether the problem exists when inspecting a building for lease or sale. Ask building management or maintenance personnel directly about IAQ problems, what were they, and whether they were solved. Ask to see building complaint logs to determine if IAQ problems are prevalent. Talk to the tenants in the building. Have they experienced IAQ problems? Look into the air-handling area and determine if it is free of stored materials. Are cooling-tower water and condensate pans chemically treated? Are condensate drains on pans blocked or unobstructed? What is the frequency of air filter changes? Is there evidence of considerable mildew? Has a professional laboratory ever analyzed bacterial growth or air samples in the building? Are these reports available? Was there a problem, and was it addressed and cured? In short, ask questions and look around to gain an understanding if IAQ is a potential problem.

Scent is often a good indicator of an IAQ problem. Does the air smell like mildew or mold? Are there obvious chemical odors? Food establishments on a lobby floor present a possible problem. If the wonderful odor of baking bread from a cafe in the lower lobby is wafting on the tenth floor, the not-so-wonderful odor of garbage will also carry if it is not properly contained. Why is the odor carrying through the building? Is there a problem in the return air system that needs to be addressed?

Well-maintained buildings do continuous, documented, routine preventative maintenance on their HVAC and water systems to extend the life of equipment and prevent IAQ problems. These buildings usually have very clean mechanical rooms, which is one sign of continued and effective maintenance. This does not guarantee a lack of IAQ problems any more than a cluttered fan room guarantees that there are IAQ problems; but both are clues, along with answers to questions asked, to determine the possibility of IAQ problems.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss
Failure to inquire about or understand IAQ in a building may put the broker or agent in jeopardy of losing a commission. Even worse, it may involve the broker or agent in personal litigation for failing to investigate or disclose IAQ problems that were open and common knowledge or were reported to public agencies or to building's management.

Brokers and agents should understand this increasingly well-publicized environmental problem and its impact on tenancy and value. Although the commercial broker or agent will not be expected to solve an existing IAQ problem, knowledge of sources and probable solutions can be of great assistance in determining if the building is well managed-and it should be a consideration for one's client or customer.

Richard R. Green

Richard R. Green is vice president and director of management services, CB Commercial Real Estate Group, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio. He can be reached at (216) 283-1122. Get Information from the Experts To get more detailed information on air quality concerns and solutions to these problems, you can contact the following sources. For detailed procedures and methodology to identify and solve IAQ problems, see Building Air Quality: A Guide for Building Owners and Facility Managers, S/N 055-000-00390-4 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. EPA/400/1-91/033, DHHS (NIOSHI) Publication No. 91-114, December 1991. Copies can be ordered for $24 each, including postage, from New Orders, Superintendent of Documents, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954. Sick Building Syndrome: A Catalog of Information Products lists more than 200 reports, studies, and government regulations related to indoor environmental issues. It is available free of charge from National Technical Information Service; phone (703) 487-4650, fax (703) 111-8547.