How air pollution is playing an increasing part in location decisions

Air pollution isn’t just an issue for people working outside; it also has increasing implications for office employees.

February 20, 2020

As pollution worsens in cities, companies are increasingly considering air quality when they are choosing where to locate.

In the UK, around 15 million people live in areas where levels of the toxic particle PM2.5 are above World Health Organisation guidelines, according to a British Heart Foundation study.

Poor air quality has significant long-term health implications, even for otherwise fit and healthy people and a knock-on effect on their ability to do their job well – even for those working indoors as fumes from outside can also seep inside buildings. 

For companies, it can mean more employees taking time off sick and lower levels of productivity in the office.

“The quality of the air we breathe can greatly impact our wellbeing,” says Diana McHugh, sustainability consultant, JLL UK. “The real estate sector can play its part by making informed asset location decisions and by providing healthy indoor environments for occupants.” 

Air quality concerns

While companies want to be located near busy transport networks and in city centres to be near clients and help attract and retain the best employees, these are equally the places where air pollution tends to be worse.

When it comes to drawing up a shortlist of potential new office buildings, it’s a secondary factor that clients are paying more attention to. However, the use of sensors and real-time data means air quality information is increasingly easy to source.

“I think air pollution will increasingly become a factor in where to locate. A year ago, this wouldn’t have been a consideration, but I think if one of your short-listed buildings is in an area of poor air quality this could certainly become a factor to watch in future,” says Barrie David, associate in UK Research.

 “There are countless studies linking good indoor air quality to improved productivity and cognitive function,” adds McHugh. “With increased public awareness around this issue, there’s a shift in occupier expectations as well. For landlords wanting to attract high quality tenants on long lease terms, providing healthy work environments can set them apart.”

According to Harvard research, better air quality leads to significantly better decision-making, while other studies have shown that a lack of fresh, clean air leads to ‘sick building syndrome’ where employees can experience irritated eyes, headaches, coughing, and chest tightness.

For companies in polluted, urban locations, interior design can help to improve air quality within buildings, with measures ranging from air purification systems to living walls.

Bloomberg’s London offices feature a smart airflow system, which draws air up through the building and out via roof vents, while the façade of Citicape House, a mixed-use scheme, in London, will be wrapped by a façade of 400,000 plants creating a living wall designed to improve air quality.

UK cities go green

It’s not just offices where green measures are being implemented to improve  air quality; cities are getting in on the act as well. Authorities are increasingly investing in green spaces and environments that can alleviate pollution.

More trees and plants are being planted to help naturally filter the air while smog eating artificial trees which suck in carbon dioxide and reduce greenhouse gases are in development.

Yet such measures alone aren’t enough; the Committee on Climate Change says the UK Government needs to plant 267 acres a day of new forests if it’s to become net zero by 2050.

With car exhaust fumes one of the biggest urban polluters, cities like Birmingham, Glasgow and London are introducing emission or ultra-low emissions zones, in a bid to restrict the number of petrol and diesel vehicles coming into the city.

More drivers are equally switching to electric vehicles yet more investment is still needed in creating a national network of electric charging points. This includes installing points at more car parks and office buildings to allow drivers to recharge their vehicles on demand.

However, such measure take time to implement and make a noticeable impact. In the meantime, air quality will rise up the priority list for employees, companies and cities.