How good is our indoor environment?

We spend 90 per cent of our time indoors. We can both exercise and shop without taking a step outdoors and the indoor trend is on the increase, despite the fact that we have little understanding of the air we are breathing.
“The health effects may not be detected for a number of years”, says LTH researcher Aneta Wierzbicka, who is coordinating an interdisciplinary theme at the Pufendorf Institute.

Aneta Wierzbicka,

LTH researcher Aneta Wierzbicka is coordinating an interdisciplinary theme at the Pufendorf Institute.

A lot of research has been conducted to enable the construction of healthy, well-ventilated houses. Yet the reports keep coming. Perhaps the most common occurrence is illness among staff and pupils at nurseries and schools caused by mould, but there are also other factors that affect health that we do not really understand, according to Aneta Wierzbicka. She is coordinating the Pufendorf theme on Healthy Indoor Environments that started in the autumn.

“I realised that a holistic approach was needed in order to make progress and improve the indoor environment, so I took the initiative for the theme and found enthusiastic and dedicated colleagues to collaborate with”, explains Aneta Wierzbicka.

She now leads one of the projects within the theme, alongside Birgitta Nordquist and Yujing Li from LTH and Emilie Stroh from the Faculty of Medicine. The four are relatively young and have reached roughly the same point in their careers.

In total, 13 researchers from around 10 disciplines are working within the theme, says Aneta Wierzbicka.

“Those of us who are engineers are good at measuring things – I measure particles in different environments and in the aerosol chamber at the Design Centre at LTH. There’s nothing wrong with that – particles are fascinating! – but the results do not give the full picture if you want to understand what makes a good indoor environment.”

Meeting researchers from fields such as psychology, environmental psychology, behavioural science, interactive design, audiovisual design, and sustainable construction has been an eye-opener, she says.

“Each individual has a unique sensitivity and unique needs. Not only air quality but also things like light, sound and expectations play a part.”

She has been inspired by her colleagues and their knowledge of the placebo and nocebo effects, i.e. how expectations influence experiences and reactions. The same applies to systemic thinking and universal design, which are about building houses that work for everyone over a long time and understanding what factors play a role.

“A good indoor environment is about people, their health and their needs.”

The Lund researchers have left their comfort zones, i.e. their own subjects, and have got to know one another across disciplinary boundaries. They do not compete, but rather appreciate each other’s expertise and have learnt a lot. It is an advantage that a number of them had previous experience of interdisciplinary work, continues Aneta Wierzbicka.

Since the theme got underway in the autumn, they have organised workshops and attended national conferences. They have established networks with colleagues around the country and also with municipalities, the building industry and users. The next step will be to apply for research grants spanning several years for the project ideas that have taken shape.

One group wants to find practical ways to encourage people to use ventilation systems in their homes and workplaces by studying the interaction and balance between good ventilation and how people deal with it.

“Many people experience draughts from the ventilation system or problems with noisy fans. Could new digital technology be used to provide simple feedback that increases users’ acceptance of the fans – for example a temporarily raised noise level when the air is worse and a simple smiley face to indicate that air quality is now OK? It is also important to encourage manufacturers to develop quieter fans.”

Another project aims to improve collaboration between researchers, construction workers and users. There is a major gulf to bridge here. Finances are still the primary factor controlling construction, not research findings on risk-free materials or the best methods of construction.

“There are a lot of thick manuals floating around that no one reads or follows properly, with regard to both how to build and how to maintain buildings and ventilation systems.”

Air quality in nurseries, which is still not regulated, and its impact on children’s health is another project in the planning stages. And one group wants to study how to go about renovating 1960s million programme districts. This involves meeting people’s needs and expectations and establishing ventilation that ensures good health for residents and saves energy.

“What should we do? Opening windows to air a room is not a good idea from the point of view of saving energy, but people want to be able to do it and to have control over it. In most places in Sweden, airing rooms is good for our health, but this is definitely not the case in a polluted metropolis like Beijing. Moreover, pollution does not always come from outside – ventilation systems also purify indoor air by removing gases and particles from cooking, candles or materials that we bring into the home, such as furniture, cleaning products and clothes”, says Aneta Wierzbicka.

Text: Britta Collberg

Photo: Gunnar Menander