Improving Your School – Part I: Minimizing Indoor Pollutants

by David Epstein, September 9, 2015

This past spring I was asked to speak at the Vermont Superintendent’s Association on the impact of 21st century learning on school design. However, in these days of tight school budgets, there is often more discussion on this topic than there is actual large scale transformation. With this mind, I thought it might be worth considering some common-sense, low cost improvements can be made to classroom environments that improve their health and productivity. As we will see, these two ideas go hand in hand. Why? Because when there is good ventilation and access to natural light, for example, students and teachers feel better, are less likely to be sick, and have a greater capacity to teach and learn.

Fundamental to any productive environment is the health of its occupants, which is based on the overall indoor environmental quality (IEQ) of the space. IEQ includes many components: air quality, lighting (both natural and artificial) and acoustics. When considering air quality, there are two main components to consider: minimizing indoor pollutants and maximizing fresh air ventilation. Let’s start this series by first discussing minimizing indoor pollutants.

The first step is to keep pollutants out of the space. To do that, we first have to understand what the sources are. The first component to consider is dirt that track in on student’s shoes. What can be done? Many schools install walk-off grills or mats at exterior entries. Remember it takes 10 feet of walk off material to adequately remove and trap dirt on shoes. Another option to require outdoor shoes be taken off in the classroom.

The choice of flooring material will have a big impact on your ability to clean it. Resilient flooring can be adequately cleaned with a wet mop or floor machine. Standard commercial carpeting is vacuumed regularly and should be deep-cleaned professionally every year to remove embedded dirt and grime.

Which is better for air quality? While the Carpet and Rug Institute claims that carpets keep allergens out of the air, it does so by trapping them in the carpet. Perhaps a better carpet-like solution is flocked flooring (Flotex or equal), which has a micro-fiber surface on an impervious cushioned backing. We have worked with many schools who like this product, as it combines the warmth and acoustic properties of carpet with the cleanability of resilient flooring. Another option is to use an area rug over resilient flooring, which can brought off-site to be properly cleaned.

Cleaning products can be another source of indoor pollutants. Vermont recognized this in 2012, when it passed Act 68, which requires the sale of only “environmentally preferable” cleaning products, practices and equipment to Vermont schools.

Other sources of pollutants in a classroom can in include paints and furniture, which may include VOCs (volatile organic compounds). If you want to know what they smell like, think of oil-based paints. These days this information is readily available about every product being considered for a classroom environment. There are third party groups, such as GreenGuard and Green Seal, which set standards for chemical emissions and certify products that meet those standards.

In this article, we have discussed minimizing pollutant sources. Next we will discuss the benefits of providing adequate ventilation to our classroom environments.

David Epstein, AIA, LEED AP BD+C

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