• Boon Edam Australia managing director, Michael Fisher.
    Boon Edam Australia managing director, Michael Fisher.

Boon Edam Australia managing director, Michael Fisher, presents new health hazards threatening the built environment.

Australia is the most fire-prone country on Earth. Fire services respond to between 45,000 and 60,000 bushfires here each year, including wildfires that burn in grasslands, scrublands, or forests.

Some are small; some cover an area the size of England.

All are increasing – and all are adding to the growing issues of air quality in our cities that must be addressed by designers, builders, and managers of our new commercial building stock and our existing one million commercial buildings.

A recent Climate Council briefing paper titled, This Is Not Normal, found that megafires and catastrophic bushfire conditions and bushfire risk have been and are being aggravated by climate change. 

And this comes at a time when we are beginning to learn just how noxious an effect bushfires are having on our urban centres, creating a pincer problem for planners, with climate change increasing the number of fires, while population growth expands the number of people affected.

Currently we are expanding our towns and cities to accommodate an additional 10 million people by 2040. The population now is already about 26 million, according to UN figures. Estimates for 2040 vary between 33 million and 37 – 39 million.

That is equivalent to five times the population when the first of today’s Baby Boomers were born post WW2 most of whom are still alive and have witnessed the profound effects of population growth, including congested, polluted cities, and crowded urban facilities.

Bushfire releases a level of noxious material that we are only just beginning to understand. Australia’s National Institute of Health says poor air quality is an emerging problem in Australia primarily due to ozone pollution events as well as lengthening and more severe wildfire events.

A new Environmental Pollution study supported by the Faculty of Science Change Cluster at the University of Technology Sydney released this year measured the amount of particulate matter concentrations and exposure evident in Sydney after the recent Black Summer cloaked many urban centres and urban centres along the Eastern Seaboard.

Smoke from Black Summer in 2019–20, chocked towns and cities along Australia’s East Coast, killed 33 people, and burned some 42 million acres (17 million hectares) – an area more than the total size of England (13 million hectares). Nearly 3 billion mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds were also believed to have died or been displaced by the fires.

The UTS study looked at the dirty fingerprint of particulate matter captured by a central Sydney sample of building heating, ventilation, and air conditioning filters during the peak of the wildfires, and from ambient emissions one year later. Its highlight findings include:

  • Black Summer wildfires increased particulate matter concentrations in Sydney
  • Aged wildfire particles were finer and more spherical than ambient urban particles
  • Wildfires were a are major source of SO42--S, NO3--N, and F- ions and a minor source of CL-
  • Smoke plumes were enriched with dissolved Mn and particulate forms of Mn, Co, and Sb
  • Wildfires enhanced Hg solubility and extended the range for Hg, Cd and Mn solubility

So what does this all mean? It points to a growing new source of pollution and health hazards in our built environment. So, if we are going to have more bushfires, affecting more people, and entering more commercial buildings, the growing presence of these environmental nasties is important to recognise.

When added to the ever-increasing levels of other urban pollution – manufacturing, combustion engines, motor cars, cooking, firewood, the construction industry, and dust – it is a pretty hazardous cocktail. These latter sources emit poisonous gases into the atmosphere, such as particulate matter (PM2.5), CO2, CO, SO2, NOX, and PM10.

Just recently the community-based Environmental Defenders Office suggested Australia was suffering an estimated 11,000 deaths from transport pollution every year. It said its research shows people in Australia’s biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, are regularly exposed to transport pollution at levels harmful to health, particularly the health of children, pregnant people, the elderly, and people living with disability and chronic diseases.

The report Toxic Transport: How Our Pollution Laws Are Failing to Protect Our Health found we are failing to properly set targets and monitor air pollution that meet the World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality guidelines.

So, given the problem of air pollution is serious and growing – and the spikes created by bushfires are increasingly significant – it places further responsibilities on the designers, owners, and managers of new commercial buildings, as well as the million existing commercial buildings in Australia. All have a duty of care to ensure the premises are safe for occupants and visitors.

Health and safety

Maintenace of healthy environments inside our built environments is a public health and safety issue. Improvements in excluding toxins include protecting against known and predictable spikes from natural events such as bushfires and seasonal airborne allergens, as well as man-made pollution.

Considering the sheer numbers of people involved with our built environment – many of our daily workforce of 12 million, for example – this clear and present health and safety issue ranks up there with reducing greenhouse gases through initiatives such as Green Star buildings.

Solutions to this issue are many and varied – this involves a mosaic of solutions, not a single silver-bullet solution, which does not exist. But it is possible to identify areas of strong potential for improvement:

  • Designing and building “tighter” building envelopes that reduce the ingress of external pollutants, allergens, and moisture, resulting in healthier outcomes. Plus, an energy-efficient building envelope can play a crucial role in reducing the energy demand by regulating the indoor thermal behaviour of the building.
  • Dust and other fine particles from vehicle exhaust, boilers, construction, and other outdoor activities can also find their way indoors through windows, doors, and other openings. This fine particulate matter can also get drawn indoors through a building’s HVAC system, where it needs to be efficiently trapped.
  • Then there are pathogens — viruses (including the coronavirus that causes Covid) and bacteria that can linger on surfaces and in the air, spreading contagious illnesses. These pathogens may be distributed throughout a building by the HVAC system or be recirculated through ductwork. UV light treatments are already used in restaurants, grocery stores, and hospitals to disinfect surfaces and equipment. 
  • But surely the first and most obvious area for improvement is the entrances to buildings, their street-front doors through which contaminants, pollution, natural allergens, bushfire smoke, noise, and ambient heat and cold often pass freely to impose loads on HVAC systems.

Let me declare my interest

Architectural revolving doors are my particular interest, naturally enough, as the head of the Australasian operation of one of the world’s leading producers of energy-saving architectural revolving doors (the Royal Boon Edam Group, with operations in 27 countries.)

My particular focus is on the role of architectural revolving doors as part of the building envelope, which, as architects and specifiers appreciate, extends across all the building components that separate the indoors from the outdoors, including exterior walls, foundations, roof, windows, and doors.

Revolving doors offer a “tighter” seal of a building, compared with Australia’s hundreds and thousands of sliding and hinged doors in building entrance locations where they constantly leak expensively warmed or cooled HVAC air 24/7, or admit into the building outside hot or cold air to place greater loads on a buildings’ HVAC system.

As they ingest air, of course, with it comes the increasingly wide range of pollutants (including bushfire pollutants) and unhealthy noise levels that have no place in a healthy environment.

Architects and engineers have long understood this.

This scientific fact – the “tightness” functionality of revolving doors – was validated recently by software developed by Boon Edam in partnership with one of the world’s leading technical universities. Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), which ranks in the top 10 engineering and technology best universities in the world.

This software is now available throughout Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea. We invite readers to review is early application and form their own conclusions.

And in no way am I suggesting that revolving doors are a total building solution or that they are superior to other door types in every installation. In fact, we do many installations where they are effectively combined with sliding, hinged doors, and layered security speed gate solutions where these are the most effective people movement solutions in particular locations.

This is a multi-faceted problem in which energy-efficient and pollution-excluding revolving doors are part of a multi-faceted solution to inner-city pollution – a layered approach to an issue which itself has many issues.

Historically we have been fortunate fact that in many places Australian air quality is generally among some of the cleanest in the world, particularly in the country. Many architects and specifiers build to take advantage of this purity (as well as designing into their built environments natural heating and cooling, saving energy).

But it is a different story in our main cities, which are often hotspots for poor air quality. As rapid urbanisation increases the number of people breathing dangerously polluted air, it becomes a building objective to exclude such air, rather than letting it in. A good fresh air solution in one place, can be an unhealthy air hazard in another.

Bushfires – with the pollution and health hazards they cause – are not only a symptom of environmental failings, but, increasingly, a cause as well.

As responsible members of the designer and building community, it is our role to address both the causes of environmental degradation, and to protect people against its serious effects here and now.