Co-Working is Co-Sharing Bad Air

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  • By Pan Chaoyang
  • Date October 28th, 2016 23:58
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  • Co-Working is Co-Sharing Bad Air

    In July of 2016 GIGA set out to find and celebrate the healthiest co-working space in Beijing and Shanghai. Air monitors were installed for a week of continuous testing throughout dozens of locations. Done with the support of PureLiving, we hoped to answer a question we’ve been asked again and again, “which co-working space has the healthiest indoor environment?” Unfortunately the results left us without much to celebrate, making this a difficult (and very delayed) post to write.

    General Findings:
    Although some co-working spaces performed significantly better than others, all suffered from shortcomings with at least one of the critical parameters being measured: PM2.5, TVOC and/or CO2. Several could even be described as health hazards. As a result, we chose to focus on general findings as opposed to the individual spaces that were tested. All findings were measured with Building Grade monitors and benchmarked against the RESET Standard for indoor air quality, which uses a mix of health thresholds defined by the WHO, US EPA and/or China code.

    Particulate Matter:
    In most co-working spaces, indoor and outdoor PM2.5 levels were virtually identical. Of the 25 spaces we monitored, only one managed to keep indoor PM2.5 within healthy levels at times when outdoor PM2.5 climbed to unhealthy levels. Meanwhile, several had worse indoor air than out with the highest showing 180ug/m3: 80% above outdoor levels and over 5x above health limits.

    Typical PM2.5 trend within co-working spaces measured. The black line is outdoor PM2.5 (US Embassy). Colored lines are indoor air quality monitors. Indoor generally follows outdoor, with indoor concentrations occasionally higher than outdoors.

    Results of the only co-working space that managed to keep PM2.5 levels within health limits. The black line is outdoor PM2.5 (US Embassy). Colored lines are indoor air quality monitors.

    Chemical off-gassing:
    VOCs (chemical off-gassing) were generally acceptable seeing as all but one of the co-working spaces was new. Only two fared poorly. The first was the same co-working space that performed well with respect to PM2.5. This is a very common relationship and was true of several of the projects tested. In order to better control PM2.5, spaces often aim to be as air-tight as possible, without having designed adequate mechanical ventilation systems. As a result, chemicals which off-gas from building products get trapped indoors as does CO2. Low PM2.5 combined with elevated levels of VOCs is often an indicator of poor quality building products and insufficient mechanical ventilation. The second space that fared poorly (3.2 times above health limit) was newly renovated.

    Most people don’t pay attention to CO2. For the most part they don’t recognize it as a problem, especially seeing as PM2.5 and VOCs tend to steal the limelight.

    The human brain goes past its point of comfort when CO2 levels exceed 1000 ppm. The brain then starts to make mistakes above 1400 ppm - slipping into levels that begin to impair decision making abilities. At 2,500 ppm, the brain enters the zone of cognitive dysfunction - particularly when it comes to strategic thinking, taking initiative and information usage.

    A recent study by Gensler showed how three people quietly sitting in a midsize conference room easily reach CO2 levels that impair decision making within a short 60 minutes. In a corporate world where Directors regularly pile into closed conference rooms to make their companies’ most important decisions, this was a disturbing realization.

    Co-working spaces are filled with young companies who can’t afford to take the wrong decisions. Many pile into under-ventilated spaces as small as 4 square meters to work on their nascent companies while taking critical decisions that determine their success, or lack thereof. Our testing of co-working spaces was limited to open work areas which typically fare better than closed conference rooms. Even then, many exceeded 1400 ppm for several hours a day, with some climbing as high as 2200 ppm for entire afternoons. Only a select few managed to stay below 1,000 ppm.

    The problems listed above aren’t limited to co-working spaces. Most offices struggle with the same challenges. However, the high number of people in some co-working spaces, combined with the lack of adequate ventilation in most cubicles seems to make the problem more acute.

    Typical CO2 trends, with daytime averages hovering between 1200ppm and 1600ppm, well within the zone of impaired decision making. The two 'good' days are Saturday and Sunday.

    A challenge for co-working offfices is that they are membership based, meaning the number of people using the spaces varies more than standard offices. In the open work ares of this particular co-working office, two of the four days were generally within the comfort zone for CO2, whereas two were well within the zone of impaired decision making, bordering on cognitive disfunction.

    Final Words:

    Anyone following the co-working market knows that competition is currently cut-throat. As a result, there are a lot of great deals out there. However, this forces many to cut corners on good building materials and ‘invisibles’ like mechanical systems. In most cases healthy air litteraly gets thrown out the window. Although we failed to produce a list of healthy co-working space for now, several of them seem to be on the right path. We hope to be able to provide a list of high performers soon.

    For those looking to choose a co-working space in the short term, the one correlation we did notice is that generally you get what you pay for. If the deal is too good, beware. On all accounts ask to see air quality data and where where the monitors are located. In one of the co-working spaces we visited, indoor PM2.5 was advertised as being 1ug/m3. This was measured by a consumer grade monitor mounted to an air filter. The actual air quality being breathed by occupants varied between 45 and 150ug/m3 (PM2.5): 4.3 times the healthy limit.

    Air quality monitors should be of building grade quality (RESET Grade B), installed in open work areas and main conference rooms, away from air quality filters and representative of the air being breathed by occupants (RESET Standard for Commercial Interiors).
    Co-working offices come with many perks, but make sure that healthy air is one of them. After all, it will directly affect the success of your business.
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