Modern energy conservation and construction techniques have ushered in a little-noticed-but-subtly-dangerous phenomenon — office workers who cannot open their windows for fresh air must rely on closed system heating, ventilation and air-cooling systems (HVACs). The recycled air in these systems may harbor a witch’s brew of mold, mildew, bacteria, cigarette smoke and volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), which can make a building “sick.” Healing a sick building can be costly — ignoring the problem can be much costlier.

Anatomy of a sick building

It is usually the occupants of the building who flag substandard indoor air quality by reporting building related illnesses such as eye, ear, nose and throat irritation, headaches, dizziness and the inability to concentrate. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) estimates that nearly one-third of office buildings have air quality problems. Air quality experts can assess complaint patterns, review HVAC systems and identify obvious pollutants to diagnose and offer solutions to treat the problem, utilizing construction and sustainable development technologies.

The failure to treat can be harmful — and costly

If sick building issues are not appropriately addressed through remediation, prevention and education, lawsuits sometimes follow, in which building occupants sue owners and owners sue those involved in the construction of the building and the manufacture of the HVAC system. You cannot assume that insurance will cover the losses, because most insurance companies are writing exclusions for internal air quality claims in their commercial general liability policies to avoid having to cover the massive costs of rehabilitating contaminated buildings. An Atlanta-based law firm can help you decide how best to handle these concerns.

Medicine for a sick building

Choose less lethal cleaning materials and paints. Avoid the overuse of pesticides and other chemicals. Find alternatives for items that emit VOCs. Inspect and maintain HVAC systems.  HVACs should ideally be pumping 20 cubic feet of fresh air per minute per person, according to one engineering group.

Although many people are slow to get on this bandwagon, some businesses institute changes that are, quite literally, a breath of fresh air. One such office provided 100% fresh air and daylight, and the employees responded with a 1.5 percent hike in productivity, which was enough to pay off the $15 million mortgage on the property. Similarly, the U.S. Postal Service installed skylights and improved the lighting in one of its facilities, and saw a 16 percent jump in productivity.

The experienced attorneys at Hartman Simons and Wood LLP provide expert assessments of the challenges and risks involved in construction projects and offer practical, efficient strategies to assure sustainable development.