In the continually evolving COVID-19 pandemic, it’s imperative that the property industry keeps up to date with how to prevent the spread. Choosing the right air filtration devices like airconditioners, and ventilation, can go a long way towards protecting people from the virus and its variants.
But according to the National Building Specification (NATSPEC) a full suite of up to date specifications for Covid air filtration and ventilation standards can’t be made until the after the National Construction Code 2022 (NCC 2022) is released in September.
NATSPEC chief executive officer of Richard Choy says it’s frustrating.
He’s recently released a memorandum around COVID-related concerns of air quality and ventilation but his organisation can’t make that memorandum up to date until the NCC updates are announced.
The government and industry owned national not-for-profit’s TECHnote DES 047 Specifying air filters gathers international standards on air filters, ventilation and airconditioning – but Choy says that even the latest ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standards are “several years old”.
NATSPEC’s objective is to gather intelligence from industry, consolidate it and advise on how to improve construction quality and productivity of the built environment, but the industry cannot be kept up to date if key groups such as the Australian Building Codes Board do not release information in a timely manner.
What’s more, there is plenty of misinformation being peddled about, says Choy – misinformation “based on anecdotal evidence and emotional positioning”.
The new NATSPEC TECHnote seeks to counteract this spread of misinformation, by addressing COVID-related concerns of air quality and ventilation.
“Air filtration systems are a big issue to a lot of people in industry due to COVID. There is a lot of misinformation.
“The standards around air filtration are quite old… with regards to the new strains of COVID, there are big differences between the ways they transmit and a lot is still unknown.
“The industry would not be smart to just jump in, they need to be up to date and flexible with what’s happening.”
The new TECHnote specifies the properties required of air filtration, so that designers and industry can go above the minimum requirement of the NCC with updated requirements.
For example, hospital design requires more stringent air filtering specifications than a home, but specialist filters are difficult to source. But even a standard airconditioning unit is suitable for a high risk space if it is maintained correctly, Choy says.
“With hotel quarantines, the virus did not spread because of the airconditioning, it spread because the operations of the hotels were not appropriate.”
“Most airconditioning systems are good at preventing spread, as long as you have fresh air.” Many office buildings deploy night flushing techniques to refresh the air while the building is empty.
On UV air filtration systems, Choy says that they do clean much better, but questions who actually requires such a high level of filtration.
“You can buy a car with all bells and whistles, or one that gets you from A to B. Does everyone need a car with all bells and whistles? The answer is no. The vehicle must fit the purpose. Same goes for aircon and filtration.”
The best thing for air quality is to open a window, he says. But that might not always be an option for those who live in harsh climates or in high rise buildings with large floor means which mean air won’t flow through the space.
And then there’s outside air quality to consider. During the 2019-2020 Black Summer bushfires, experts estimated that the effect of inhaling Sydney’s fire haze was the equivalent of a pack-a-day smoking habit, and residents were urged to spend time in indoor venues like libraries and shopping centres to avoid exposure to particles.
According to NSW Health, household airconditioners do not filter out fine particles present in the bushfire haze.
In 2021 then chief health officer of Victoria, Brett Sutton admitted that Australia’s air indoor quality was categorically not up to scratch.
“We’ve got a huge bit of work to do with ventilation across the board in so many indoor settings,” Professor Sutton said. “The reality is there are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of indoor settings that need infrastructural change in order to be well ventilated.”
But that kind of large-scale infrastructure change cannot be done without the proper advice.
“No one can plan ahead,” says Choy. “It is a logistical nightmare, they can’t make well-informed decisions because the requirements are very minimal.
“Industry likes certainty. So the earlier someone tells us what we are supposed to be doing, the earlier we can make decisions straight away.
“Anecdotally there’s a bit of frustration… Normally you get the update drafts sooner.”
And this also creates delays for sustainability decisions as well.
Designers want the industry to jump higher with sustainability, Choy says, but some industry groups say the greater cost is not of value.
There’s been plenty of discussions around minimal requirements for energy efficiency and condensation amendments, but they have not yet been released for preview.
Releasing the information will prevent “a lot of money going down the gurgler”.
But Choy says that it’s better to get things done correctly.
“There’s a lot of savings if people can get it right the first time.”
“We’d rather have it right than have it rushed.”
NCC 2022 is expected to be adopted by states and territories from 1 September 2022.