How to Create a Healthy Learning Environment


A recent case study shows how a Florida university took action to improve indoor air quality and promote the health and well-being of students and staff.

By Al LaPera, Contributing Author

Prior to March 2020, the idea of ​​creating a healthy learning environment had a completely different connotation. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the facility landscape changed completely. Most facility managers are at least passively familiar with terms such as ASHRAE, IES (Illuminating Engineering Society), Fitwel, and WELL Building Standard. But now new terms needed to be added to their lexicon, including the CDC, the American Society of Microbiology, and the NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety).

In July 2020, as Florida Polytechnic University embarked on a project to begin navigating these uncharted waters, facility managers began to focus on a new concept important to them: health and wellness. decide on the safest way to bring back not only students, but also facilities and staff. However, among those most concerned about the students were their parents.

During the first meetings, a two-phase approach was discussed. Phase 1 would consist of a campus-wide assessment of buildings using the new WELL health and safety rating, as well as newly developed environmental and air quality criteria from ASHRAE, the CDC, etc

This new WELL health and safety assessment protocol has eight base tenants. The team decided to focus on the top three.

  1. Promote clean contact
  2. Improve air quality
  3. Maintain water quality
  4. Manage risk and create organizational resilience
  5. Support movement and comfort, including working from home
  6. Strengthen the immune system
  7. Foster Mental Resilience
  8. Support community resilience and recovery

Phase 2 of the approach was to implement changes, based on the Phase 1 assessment, which included a retrocommissioning process. With the genesis of a plan on how to get students safely back to college, the next step was implementation.

The Phase 1 evaluation showed that in general, the facilities department was doing an excellent job against the WELL protocols. In terms of promoting cleaning contact, the facilities team had covered all the major bases such as touchless taps, toilets/urinals, soap dispensers, etc.

Indoor air quality was also very good. The facilities staff were doing a great job on the buildings already maintaining good operational humidity control, good filtration and general general maintenance. All test readings for temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, and particulates were well within acceptable ranges. Air quality analysis has incorporated examination of filtration for its effectiveness in containing/removing COVID-19 virus particles. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) software called “Fate of Transport of Indoor Microbiological Aerosols (FaTIMA)” was used. This simulation program indicated that MERV-13 air filters should be the minimum rating required. ASHRAE also supported this claim. The surprising conclusion from these simulations was that under current operating conditions, the virus will remain airborne for over an hour after an infected person leaves the room. But by increasing filtration from MERV 13 to MERV 15, airborne concentrations are removed 20% faster and 33% faster if a 500 cfm HEPA air filter was added to the space. Additionally, the initial displacement ventilation design of the facilities had positive effects in reducing the spread of the virus. This happened because displacement ventilation brings air through the breathing zone once instead of traditional air recirculation systems.

The final focus area, maintaining water quality, was also rated as good. Domestic hot water stored at 140F which is good legionella prevention protocol, and there was good general maintenance of the systems.

Planned upgrades

Although the evaluation showed that things were going well, it also generated recommendations for action strategies to improve. For example, one method of reducing transmission is to place toilet bins near the exit since now people are holding the door open with paper towels. Other ideas included removing toilet doors, using antimicrobial soap, and adding sanitizing stations in strategic locations such as labs where multiple students were using tools.

Additionally, during the recommissioning process that followed the assessment, it was determined that the temperature sensors required recalibration and some needed to be replaced. The control sequences also had to be slightly modified. The process also determined that not all airflow measuring stations were delivering the amount of air indicated on the building management system, an issue that was a priority to resolve. In addition, the team recalibrated all of the facility’s variable air volume boxes.

It is important to remember that a healthy building is not just about having clean air, it also includes access to clean water, plenty of natural light, views of the natural environment and a thermal comfort. Introducing the natural environment into the building is known as biophilic design and has proven to be extremely beneficial to the occupants. Biophilic design has even been studied in the classroom, resulting in higher test scores, lower blood pressure, improved short-term memory, and increased positive emotions.

Al LaPera, EMP, CxA, LEED AP, is a senior associate with TLC Engineering Solutions. He is also a member of the board of directors of Energy Management Association (EMA) and trainer for AABC Commissioning Group (ACG).

Related Topics:


Comments are closed.