Interior Strategies for Better IAQ

April 7, 2021
Coffee and Water Lab

There are many factors that impact indoor air quality, from ventilation to your choice of air filter. Some of them are out of your control, but others you can affect directly—especially when it comes to your choice of interior products. 

“We spend roughly 90% of our time indoors and inhale as much as 11,000 liters of air per day. If the air quality is bad, then we’re inhaling contaminants,” explained Hafsa Burt, studio head for hb+a Architects, a design firm that advocates for high-performance buildings. 

“What I come across in interior design is that most people just put objects in an interior environment and call it design,” Burt added. “To me, design is a well-thought-out solution that focuses on how occupants feel physically and mentally in a space and what effects the indoor environment might have on their wellbeing, including cognitive function.” 

Focusing on occupant wellbeing means approaching IAQ thoughtfully and purposefully. Here’s what you need to know about interior choices and IAQ. 

[Related: Plants May Mitigate VOC Threats]

How Interior Design Impacts IAQ 

When it comes to interiors, your best bet for improving IAQ is reducing airborne pollutants. You may not be able to replace the HVAC system, but you can make sure that your new furnishings aren’t releasing volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. VOCs are given off (or “offgassed”) by all sorts of interior products, including:  

  • Paints, stains and coatings 
  • Furnishings 
  • Cabinetry 
  • Flooring 
  • Paint strippers 
  • Adhesives 
  • Cleaning solutions 
  • Printers 

Why is this important? VOCs released into the air can cause eye and respiratory inflammation, headaches, fatigue and inability to concentrate—all of which negatively impact productivity. The interiors choices in a space can directly affect the work people are able to do there. The EPA reported to Congress in 1989 that improving indoor air quality “can result in higher productivity and fewer lost work days,” according to the agency’s IAQ guide, “An Office Building Occupant’s Guide to Indoor Air Quality.”  

Terra Glen
Terra Glen is a 1970s-era apartment complex in San Jose. Its renovation gutted the building down to studs in order to open up the space for light, proper ventilation and views. The design team selected low-VOC paints and coatings for the project. Photo courtesy of Jason Foy.

Strategies for Improving IAQ 

There are a few ways to reduce the level of VOCs in your facility, and they work best when used together.  

1. Invest in low- or no-VOC products. It’s much easier to simply start with fewer VOCs in the first place. Many manufacturers offer low- or no-VOC versions of paints, coatings, wood treatments and more. If you’re pursuing a green building certification, you’re probably already familiar with the available selection. 

2. Remove the sources of VOCs you already have. Move new furnishings or other VOC sources into a well-ventilated area until they’re done offgassing. 

3. Remove remaining VOCs from the air. Make sure your spaces are adequately ventilated with fresh air. Consider adding plants that are good at absorbing VOCs from the air—Vadoud Niri’s 2016 research at the State University of New York at Oswego ranked the bromeliad near the top. 

“The best thing to do in any space is a constant supply of fresh air and selection of materials that don’t have toxins that are harmful to human health,” Burt said. “These considerations are very important in terms of specifying paint or other finishes.” 

Materials Matter 

The furnishings and materials you specify can have a direct impact on the wellbeing of people within the space, so it’s important to specify wisely. Some of Burt’s go-to sources include: 

Health Product Declaration: Products that have earned HPDs must report product contents and the associated health information. 

mindful MATERIALS: This free product library aggregates information on health and environmental impacts for submitted products. 

Declare: A project by the International Living Future Institute, Declare is a “nutrition label” and transparency platform for building products. Declare-labeled products disclose their ingredients and VOC content. 

LEED and other green building certifications: Many certifications require products with low health impacts and may give project teams specific parameters to consider. These can be a good source of information on products that promote good IAQ. 

“We always encourage folks to judiciously read labels on products and seek the materials safety data, just like you read food labels,” Burt said. “More people need to start reading the labels of the product they’re specifying. There are a lot of marketing claims people can be tricked with, so it might be a good idea to bring a professional on board to consult with you.”

Read next: 4 Ways to Improve IAQ and Your Property’s Bottom Line

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About the author
Janelle Penny | Editor-in-Chief at BUILDINGS

Janelle Penny has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with a special emphasis on covering facilities management. She aims to deliver practical, actionable content for facilities professionals.