Creating healthier learning environments using building energy management systems

The pandemic has heightened interest in knowing more about the ‘health’ of school and college environments. Next generation building management technology can help supply the answer, explains Steve Rainbow, Key Account Manager, Trend Control Systems

Health and environmental issues continue to dominate the world’s headlines. As a result, our awareness of contagion and pollution, and their effects on us, has never been higher. From travel and transport, to workplaces, learning environments and social venues, we are now more sensitive about standards of cleanliness. As a result of the pandemic, we have all become acclimatised to a new environmental experience that centres on safety measures and wellbeing.

These issues are having a direct impact on the education sector, which has had to adapt to accommodate immediate and potential longer-term results of the global health crisis. The steps taken offer both practical and psychological benefits – it’s not just a matter of making learning spaces cleaner or safer, it’s also important that these steps are publicised to make students and staff feel safer, too. Creating and maintaining confidence is every bit as important as the underlying steps and practical measures that have been put in place.

Many of the initial steps were remedial – stop-gap solutions designed to maintain an immediate continuity of operation. Since then, time and more detailed considerations have enabled building managers and their teams to better assess the needs of their portfolio from a number of perspectives.

A controlled environment
The concept of a ‘healthy building’ isn’t new, although it has been amplified during the past year. As a result, there’s a bigger picture starting to come into focus; an environment that’s based on four interrelated pillars than can all be improved to provide a better occupant experience:

  • Indoor air quality
  • Lighting
  • Comfort
  • Compliance to new regulations (e.g., social distancing, mask detection, contact tracing)

Taken in combination, these can deliver a learning space that better supports the needs of its occupants and helps provide reassurance that it is safer.

Improving air quality
Properly ventilating schools, universities and colleges requires a careful balance between bringing in oxygenated air from outdoors and removing stale air. Using indoor air quality sensors, as part of a wider building energy management system (BEMS), is an effective way of monitoring the presence of a range of pollutants. The latest generation of sensors enables building owners to strategically outfit their buildings without significant expenditure.

Alongside managing the rate of air exchange, the use of filtration and cleaning technologies are an important defence against airborne pathogens. One of the latest filtration and cleaning developments is the use of electronic air cleaners (EACs), which carry an ionising electric charge that helps remove solid and liquid pollutants without significantly impeding air flow. These systems can be paired with UV purifiers that, when used properly, have been shown by laboratory studies to inactivate certain viral, bacterial and fungal organisms.

Air quality is not just about outright cleanliness but also associated factors such as temperature and relative humidity as both have a bearing on occupant comfort. In most cases, the optimal range for humidity is around 40-60% as this is where the communication of viral pathogens is at its lowest; it is more difficult to control the spread of potential infections in excessively dry conditions. On the other hand, excessive humidity promotes the growth of dust mites and fungi, which are known to exacerbate respiratory conditions and allergies.

Managing indoor air temperatures is a more complex balancing act. Studies show that virus survival rate decreases as temperatures rise. Yet, higher temperatures have an impact on occupant comfort and humidity levels. Running a BEMS in the most effective and efficient way is specific to each building, depending on its location, balancing the comfort and well-being of its occupants with energy use.

Minimising energy expenditure
A modern BEMS not only helps maintain occupant comfort, it also helps minimise avoidable energy expenditures. For example, sensors are capable of monitoring light readings to provide an optimum level of illumination, only switching on lighting when and where it is needed. Additionally, areas such as hallways, classrooms and lecture halls can be run more efficiently, especially if footfall and usage aren’t constant. Air conditioning systems, lighting and audio visual equipment in parts of a building not being used can be automatically switched off or turned down to an energy saving mode.

This doesn’t just reduce energy consumption, it can also help improve the occupant experience by making the most appropriate facilities available, cost-effectively and efficiently. Significantly, sensors can monitor occupant activity and building capacity in real time, helping maintain regulatory compliance, such as social distancing, to further confidence.

Show and tell
The importance of the ability to demonstrate the health and safety measures that have been implemented in a building was recently revealed by a survey undertaken by Honeywell into how sports fans in the UK felt about returning to stadium-based events. A massive 79% of respondents wanted to be notified of the safety measures that had been put in place before they’d feel comfortable about a return to the stands.

Most importantly, there is a final, crucial benefit to be had from smart building technologies: sustainability. A McKinsey & Company survey found that the public became more engaged in sustainability topics during the pandemic, with 88% of respondents believing that more attention should be paid to reducing pollution. People started to change their behaviours during lockdown, with 60% going out of their way to recycle and purchase products in environmentally friendly packaging.

An orderly return to the classroom
From a building management perspective, it is possible, indeed, desirable, to manage a building portfolio using remote tools, especially when dealing with lockdowns and limited access to a site. The benefits include the ability to respond to changing situations in real time from any location. There is also the possibility to gain control of unconnected locations using systems implemented elsewhere.

There is still an element of uncertainty about how and when occupancy levels will ramp up although there are strong indications that ‘normal’ practices will return in large measure. In the UK, the majority of schools across the country welcomed their students back to in-person learning after the Easter break. While there have been changes and challenges over the past year, the UK government remains committed to providing all children access to good quality education no matter their background.

Safety and confidence
We need to implement today’s cutting-edge technologies to shape how we use our built environment. From universities, colleges, and hospitals to places of work and relaxation, the onus is going to be on building managers to not only create healthier environments but also ones in which occupants are confident about that safety.

About Trend Control Systems
With a worldwide distribution and support network covering over 50 countries, Trend Control Systems is a major international supplier of building energy management solutions (BEMS).  The vast majority of Trend’s control systems are supplied, engineered and commissioned by approved systems integrators. Trend Control Systems is part of Honeywell Building Technologies. Learn more here.

Find out more about Trend solutions here.