Hal Levin of the Building Ecology Research Group, Santa Cruz, Calif., said that benchmarks are the key to creating and maintaining both healthy and sustainable buildings with appropriate HVAC systems.

BALTIMORE, Md. - Can sustainability be compared with the methods we use to gauge healthy buildings, those that have an acceptable level of IAQ? Yes they can, says Hal Levin of the Building Ecology Research Group, Santa Cruz, Calif., a featured speaker at ASHRAE lAQ2007, sponsored by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers.

For commercial contractors facing the rather menacing goal of lowering building carbon footprints, this is hopeful news.

“Designing for energy efficiency is often done by comparing buildings to Standard 90.1,” he said. “This is done during design and again using measured data in a completed building. Buildings are also compared to each other, to typical high-performance buildings,” Levin said. Such resources allow building designers, contractors, and owners/operators to compare their buildings’ performance to similar buildings.


In order to determine that a building is sustainable or healthy, “we must have benchmarks that represent sustainable building performance,” Levin said. These can be determined “by assessing the environment or the impacts of a building and comparing them to values derived from scientific evidence on health and sustainability.”

One example, he continued, would be to gauge maximum indoor air concentrations of a particular substance based on a margin of safety, which falls below an established airborne concentration limit. “The concentration limit is created “by applying a health-based set of criteria to a well-understood indoor pollutant,” Levin said, “provid(ing) designers and operators with more evidence of the healthfulness of their building. …”

Unfortunately, he said such levels have not been established for most indoor pollutants. “But for most that are commonly found at significant concentrations, there is substantial evidence pointing toward what might be acceptable or low-risk indoor concentrations.”

In the end, he said, “knowing what is deemed a safe level by health authorities is the most reliable way to determine whether indoor air pollutants are present below concentrations that will make the environment safe.”

There is a need, he said, to establish benchmarks “in order to assess the performance of buildings in terms of sustainability.”

Establishing benchmarks for carbon emissions from buildings would provide examples for specific building types. The process of developing these benchmarks requires many sets of values, Levin said, but the problem of greenhouse gases and global warming isn’t going away any time soon; there will be time to make adjustments.

“Many judgments are required in establishing such targets. … Targets can be re-evaluated as more data become available regarding the relationship of the targets to atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and their relationship to observed changes in global climate.”


The method can also be used to determine sustainable limits for resource consumption and emissions of pollutants to air, water, and soil. Target-setting at first seems quite daunting, he said, but when technological potentials are identified, “it becomes evident that achieving sustainable societies is not only possible but technically quite feasible.

“What is most challenging is finding the means to motivate people to make the decisions that will result in healthier and more sustainable buildings. Fortunately, many of these changes are economically rewarding in spite of popular beliefs to the contrary.”

The results, he said, “will be a healthier economy as well as healthier building environments in a healthy planet.”

“Furthermore, the quality of life provided seems more appealing than the currently unsustainable environmental and building practices that now dominate the developed and many of the developing economies.”

In the end, he said, “the potential of end-use energy efficiency is far greater than that of developing affordable, environmentally benign sources of new energy to power our buildings and to allow us to enjoy the level of mobility provided today by the automobile.

That low-hanging fruit technologies, he said, “are rotting under our feet and rising up around our ankles as they pile up on the ground all around us.”

Publication Date:12/17/2007