‘Sick-building syndrome’ fuelling India’s COVID-19 infections

Greed of the air-conditioning industry and architects mean that India’s new buildings don’t get adequate ventilation; now, the Centre has released new guidelines that stress on adequate ventilation of indoors to stop COVID-19 transmission

By Avikal Somvanshi
Published: Thursday 20 May 2021

The office of principal scientific adviser to the Government of India has recently issued new guidelines to fight the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. It says wearing masks, maintaining distance, adequate sanitation and proper indoor ventilation are key to stopping the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

Special emphasis has been laid on proper indoor ventilation, with the guidelines saying: “Just as smells can be diluted by ventilation, the dangerous concentration of the virus can be reduced by ensuring that outdoor air flows in.”

“In closed, un-ventilated indoor spaces, droplets and aerosols become quickly concentrated and greatly increase the risk of transmission to people in the area,” the guidelines add. But a visit to any building, especially the bougie type that has come up in the last two decades shows that they are nothing but an assortment of ‘closed, un-ventilated indoor spaces’.

How did our buildings, that used to be designed around airy courtyards, turn into breeding chambers for a pandemic? 

Well, it is the result of aggressive marketing undertaken by the air conditioning (AC) industry that has been brainwashing the public into believing that shivering cold indoors are comfortable and a sign of upward mobility in society.

They are effectively supported by lazy, greedy architects and builders who are more than happy to design buildings whose looks are copied from the west but are mere closed un-ventilated boxes in reality, only made habitable by use of ACs. Of course, they also get direct and indirect commissions from the air conditioning industry for increasing the sale of their product and sickening our buildings.

‘Sick-building syndrome’

The West has been battling with this lack of natural ventilation in its modern buildings since the mid-20th century. Westerners even coined the term “sick building syndrome” (SBS) to describe it.

SBS is a situation in which the occupants of a building experience acute health effects that appear to be linked to time spent in the building; however, no specific illness or cause can be identified. The complaints may be localised in a particular room or zone, or may be widespread throughout the building.

Such trapped, stale-air indoors have become a staple of new building stock in India due to the mindless import of international architecture styles. The new guidelines are basically warning against hazards of now introducing a deadly air-borne virus in this already sickening space.

Blocking windows and vents

Ventilation can be achieved through mechanical or natural methods. But effective ventilation in an air conditioned space basically means recirculation on indoor air as infusion of outdoor air reduces cooling performance of the system. This leads to air-tightening of buildings and hinders diluting virus concentration. 

The Indian building industry has increasingly opted for mechanical ventilation to make a building functional instead of natural ventilation. This is driven by the marketing pitch of the air conditioning industry. 

In fact, most of the popular trends in real estate, like central air conditioning and glass façade, use language from AC industries playbook that justifies them as essential for more energy efficient cooling and ventilation. As a result, windows are being reduced to see-through wall panels that traps heat but not the breeze. 

This designed lack of access to outdoor air in our rooms is the reason the guidelines say: “Add an exhaust fan OR turn a pedestal fan into an exhaust fan by turning it to face outdoors, to create the ideal airflow for maximum protection from indoor infection.”

For our suffocating workplaces, the guidelines suggest “keeping windows and doors wide open with the air conditioners running so that clean air can enter and dilute virus particles.” For maximum air circulation, the addition of an exhaust fan has also been suggested.

War against fans

After openable windows, ceiling fans are the next biggest tragedy of the bougie architecture style. They are rarely seen in new age offices and are becoming increasingly absent in homes as well. Thanks to air conditioning. They are perceived as ugly by architects and compromising the efficiency of air conditioning by energy consultants.

Both views are dogmatic and out of touch with reality. There are many architects that have tastefully blended fans into the contemporary aesthetics of building interiors, while the coupling of fans with air conditioning has been recommended by the Bureau of Energy Efficiency as a more effective and energy efficient way of cooling.

Nevertheless, fans have become an afterthought in most new building stock and often are placed at spots not conducive to cross-ventilation. They mostly keep moving the same air in the building without any replacement from outdoors. That is the reason why the guidelines stated: “The placement of the fan is also crucial as the fan should not be at a place where it can cause contaminated air to flow directly to someone else.”

Fixing our building codes

The National Building Code of India, which is the base document regulating building design for safety and health, treats natural ventilation and mechanical ventilation as mutually exclusive aspects of building.

This basically meant spaces that were mechanically ventilated or air conditioned were exempt from the requirement of providing natural ventilation. Different standards for ventilation are drafted for air conditioned spaces which are now responsible for spiking the concentration of the virus indoors. This is not actually an India-specific problem but has been done globally thanks to the lobbying prowess of the air conditioning industry.

This is not to say that air conditioning has no benefits. It has a role to play, but so does natural ventilation and arguably a more important one. It should not be a this or that choice that our existing standards and mainstream architecture practice have been professing. 

Given the vested interests and money involved, it would be foolhardy to expect the industry to fix the existing system without any policy change. Moving forward, we need to be designing buildings that have a mixed-mode of ventilation systems and our building standards and codes need to mandate it. 

We need our buildings to breathe naturally if we want to continue breathing naturally.

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