We are choking in San Francisco. What do we expect our buildings to do?

You’ve probably heard about the horrific fires north of San Francisco in Napa and Sonoma counties, and you may even have heard about the terrible air quality blanketing the surrounding area as a result.

Its real. I certainly can attest to the severity of the problem, as I sit in my (un-ventilated) home office and hope it acts as a halfway decent particulate filter, though my coughing suggests that it does not.

And of course, I am not in any way deserving of sympathy in this situation since,

  1. I still have a house, unlike many folks who live only 20 miles or so away, and,
  2. I don’t suffer from asthma or other serious conditions that are forcing lots of folks in San Francisco to effectively hide themselves indoors and hope for the best. We were actually expecting a visit from my grandparents from North Carolina as they finished a cross country drive, but my grandmother’s asthma has left them sitting in their truck camper at the California border wondering if they’ll be able to make the visit at all!

If you’re are curious what this looks like, take a look at the slideshow at this link.

Everyone in and near San Francisco is being affected right now, and most of them went to an office every day last week, and they probably assumed that their office building’s systems were taking care of the obvious particulate problem.

But should they expect that? Is there anything in their lease that says the building owner or operator will shut the outdoor air dampers if there is an outdoor air quality event? Do they know if the building has filters capable of removing fine particulates? Do they know if those filters are clean?

Most folks are not sure how to answer those questions. And most building operators probably aren’t sure what they are supposed to do in this situation. And most building owners are also likely to be unsure what is expected of them and will be sending nervous emails to their lawyers when asked.

When I give presentations about Indoor Environment Quality (IEQ) and what folks in the real estate industry are doing on the topic, I always point out that it is far from clear to building owners and operators what they should be doing to understand, much less improve, their buildings' IEQ.

To me, this uncertainty calls for clarifying our expectations of “adequate” IEQ and determining roles and responsibilities based on those expectations.

I can say that I’ve been in quite a few buildings in the city since the fire started, and each one of them closed the outdoor air dampers because of the smoke, even if they were not receiving any complaints. But these buildings are generally owned and operated by active and engaged companies that are noted as industry leaders.

I have also noticed several signs in building lobbies requesting tenants keep windows closed, see an example taken last week.

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For now, I guess we should be thankful that building operators are doing their best to take action in this terrible situation!