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Improved ventilation essential to safe building use, engineers warn

Good ventilation inside public buildings and on transport systems is essential to reducing the risk of COVID-19 and other infections, a report published by the Royal Academy of Engineering and its National Engineering Policy Centre warns.

In the report, Infection Resilient Environments: Buildings that keep us healthy and safe – initial report, commissioned by the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, leading engineers say ventilation’s importance is too often neglected, with the COVID-19 crisis ‘revealing  flaws in the way in which we design, manage, and operate buildings’. Unless they are addressed, these could ‘disrupt management of this and future pandemics, impose high financial and health costs on society, and constrain our ability to address other challenges such as climate change’.

The report says ‘clear, consistent communication and advice’ on ventilation from government and professional bodies is needed to help building owners and operators manage infection risks. It also argues that ‘clearly identifiable measures that can be implemented at moderate cost will help ensure that adequate ventilation is prioritised, alongside more visible measures such as surface cleaning and distancing’.

The report also warns of ‘an urgent need to plug skills and knowledge gaps’ and put in place the training, re-skilling, and recruitment needed to fill them, adding that, ‘even in sectors such as hospitals, which have a clear regulatory framework and an explicit remit for managing the health and safety of vulnerable populations, levels of skill and competence vary’.

In a series of evidentiary hearings, the Royal Academy of Engineering uncovered differing levels of organisational maturity across operators and sectors, and variation in the ability and motivation of owners to understand, manage, and govern, infection control issues.

It says investment in R&D is needed to clarify issues such as acceptable minimum standards for ventilation to support regulation by local authorities and others. The RAEng said: “Efforts to increase resilience to infection must also work alongside the delivery of significant carbon emission savings from our buildings. These two ambitions should be driven forward in tandem, and efforts across government need to be fully coordinated.”

The report warns that technological solutions are not a ‘silver bullet’, and  that ‘uninformed reliance on technology’ can even have negative consequences. For example, air cleaning using high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters or ultraviolet light (UVC) can be effective at reducing infection risks in locations where good ventilation is difficult to achieve. However, the benefits of using other kinds of air cleaning devices, often heavily marketed, ‘are less clear’.

Key recommendations include:

  • Government should urgently map the knowledge and skills requirements across the building industry, general businesses, and the engineering professions, and put in place plans to address the skills gaps identified.
  • Government should undertake a rapid review of the capacity and capability requirements among regulators (including local authorities), to support and enforce standards in maintaining buildings for public health.
  • Working with the National Core Studies Programme, UKRI, and the National Academies, Government should implement an action plan to address key research gaps on an accelerated basis.
  • Research and demonstration projects should be commissioned to fill key knowledge gaps – such as the acceptable minimum standards for ventilation to manage infection risk, and to underwrite regulation and enforcement.
  • Action to meet Net Zero must be developed in a way ‘consistent with priorities around indoor air quality and making buildings resilient to infection’.

Professor Peter Guthrie OBE FREng, Vice-President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and Chair of the NEPC Infection Resilient Environments Working Group, said:

“Buildings make an enormous difference to people’s health, and we have often neglected this in the past, which is bad news in a pandemic, because they are one of the most significant levers that we have to control infection. We must take action now to make sure good practice in ventilation is widely understood and applied across workplaces and public buildings.

“Longer term, this is a real opportunity to transform the way we design and manage our buildings to create good, healthy, and sustainable environments for those who use them. We must also integrate this with thinking on infection control into our approach to Net Zero, to prevent inadvertently hard-wiring a susceptibility to infection and other health risks into our building stock and management practices.”


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