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Breathe Deep... Hope Is Still In the Air

May 31, 2022
EDITOR'S NOTE: As we continue to be pummeled by current events, take heart. Our industry has cause to feel energized by growing momentum toward an IAQ renaissance.

In case you missed it, May was National Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S. As June arrives, it seems safe to say that we are all painfully aware of the state of our mental health, yet again.

Indeed, the latest, shocking mass shootings in Buffalo NY and Uvalde TX have once again battered our anxious nation, already shaken by two-plus years of a relentless pandemic, political divisiveness, and persistent economic anxiety. 

Two months ago in this space, in our March/April issue In, I marked two years since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic. And two months prior to that, I addressed January’s two deadly apartment fires in New York and Philadelphia, which are still sending shockwaves through our industry. (For more on that, listen to our new podcast with Jim Pauley, president of the National Fire Protection Association.) 

So, where to find hope?  

As we start the summer, what is something that members of our industry can latch onto beyond the next sale or project? After all, you all follow the otherwise grim daily news headlines, too, just like everybody else. 

Well, for now, something close to hope seems to be coming from a genuinely unlikely source: the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.   

Created in 1970 by an executive order from President Nixon, EPA has been charged for more than half a century now with protecting the environment, as its name suggests. Started in the aftermath of 1969’s infamous chemical fire on the Cuyahoga River feeding Lake Erie in Cleveland, OH, the agency has long been the bane of builders, designers and developers dismissive of government regulations and dismayed by the new burdens of added time, paperwork, and perceived inefficiencies in what everyone would agree has become, well, a complicated permitting process, to say the least. 

Which makes it all the more noteworthy, and yes, even hopeful, that EPA’s new Clean Air In Buildings Challenge so far is being received by our industry with so much enthusiasm. From ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force Chair Bill Bahnfleth and International WELL Building Institute CEO Rachel Hodgdon to HPAC sustainability columnist Larry Clark, and even Forbes magazine, there seems to be a consensus already that this new four-pronged challenge is, indeed, “a big deal.”  Why? 

As best I can tell, it is because of the timing. And the availability of federal funding, of course.  

Building owners and real estate developers appear to have realized that they now need to do more to lure wary tenants back to the office and to other shared public spaces. To accomplish that, they will have to reassure occupants that they will be safe inside their buildings. And to make that happen, they will have to invest in indoor air quality (IAQ) improvements to ventilation, filtration, etc. 

In other words, competition now seems poised to accelerate these upgrades. 

As so many of us have seen, and more than a few have experienced first-hand over the last two years, the dynamics of urban downtowns in the U.S. have been transformed by the pandemic. An explosion of technology has normalized the concept of remote work for many, and that trend seems unlikely to reverse itself in the next few years. Which means that more and more downtown building owners will be competing with each other for fewer prospective tenants. 

So, expect a renaissance of the technologies that will clean, disinfect, refresh, measure and monitor our indoor air quality. And now that the EPA has issued this new challenge, and backed it with billions of dollars, expect actual improvements to happen sooner than later, in the months and years to come. 

That’s something that should help us all breathe a little easier, at least for now.  

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