Choosing Between Occupant Well-being and Energy Consumption is a Relic of the Past

    Manish Sharma, vice president and general manager, sustainable buildings, Honeywell Building Technologies

    If COVID-19 has taught us nothing else about managing indoor environments, it’s debunked the focus on managing energy costs at the potential expense of indoor air quality (IAQ) – which might be called ‘stepping over dollars to pick up pennies.’ At the same time, it’s reaffirmed the maxim, ‘If you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything.’

    Building owners and managers who cling to the former attitude should look at what’s really of value to them – and new technologies that can make it possible to better support their occupants’ well-being and measurably reduce their energy costs. They no longer need to operate on the assumption that these two initiatives are mutually exclusive.

    For that matter, ignoring either is also not an option. Some parents have even started sending pocket-sized CO2 monitors to school with their kids to covertly assess whether the indoor air is safe.[i] While indoor CO2 level is not a proxy for overall IAQ, it’s still accepted as a gauge of how much second-hand air an occupant is likely to inhale and, therefore, of potential virus transmissibility.[ii]

    Building owners also face increasing pressure to develop and implement sustainability plans. As it stands today, commercial buildings account for more than 36% of global energy consumption[iii] and nearly 40% of direct and indirect CO2 emissions.[iv] Conversely, HVAC systems often present the largest opportunity for conserving building energy use and reducing operating costs. 

    Buildings – just like the organizations and people who use them – need to be managed dynamically. They need to be able to adjust to outside pressures like weather and energy regulation to indoor concerns like occupancy levels and IAQ. They can’t be treated like static steel and concrete.

    Instead of prioritizing either IAQ or energy efficiency, facilities owners need to look for ways to make their buildings more dynamic and responsive. Today’s solutions don’t require a massive and expensive mechanical overhaul like changing out the boilers or a major building envelope upgrade like replacing all the windows. A multimodal solution can be added incrementally, integrating it into the existing HVAC system as time and budget allow, without having to shut the building down.

    Whichever approach building owners choose, it’s now possible to install a much smarter, dynamically responsive control system that makes a 10-year-old HVAC system more efficient without requiring major mechanical changes. Even a system of that recent a vintage was likely designed around static rules about how much fresh air to pull in regardless of weather or occupancy. Modern multimodal controls sense both occupancy of a specific space and weather conditions and adjust ventilation accordingly, whether it’s a frigid 5 degrees Fahrenheit or scorching 95 degrees with 85% humidity outside, or a high school that instead of having its occupancy evenly dispersed throughout its classrooms, has a packed gym for a pep rally.

    Choosing between occupant well-being and energy consumption is a relic of the past. It’s time for building owners to embrace the moment and commit to upgrading their facilities with multimodal optimization solutions that deliver a healthier, safer, and more energy-conscious future.


    [i] New York Times, The hot new back-to-school accessory? An air quality monitor. Emily Anthes, October 10, 2021. [Accessed October 15, 2021]

    [ii] Washington Post, “The coronavirus is airborne. Here’s how to know if you’re breathing other people’s breath.” Chris Mooney, February 10, 2021. [Accessed October 14, 2021]   

    [iii] International Energy Agency, “Buildings: A source of enormous untapped efficiency potential.” 2021. [Accessed September 15, 2021]

    [iv] American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, “Smart buildings: using smart technology to save energy in existing buildings,” by Jennifer King and Christopher Perry, February 2017. [Accessed September 19, 2021]