How many times have you, a design engineer, builder, or facility manager, witnessed HVAC system cutbacks when a project bid exceeds the owner’s budget or more space for occupants is needed in a new design or renovation? 

Before COVID-19, price-driven mechanical system downgrades that jeopardized IAQ were often tolerated because the health consequences were not immediate or even obvious. This pandemic has changed that.

Once it became clear that SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurred indoors, management of IAQ applied not only to employee comfort and productivity but also escalated to become synonymous with infection control. Discussions about HVAC systems now include mitigation of viral transmission through ventilation, filtration, humidification, and other air-cleaning strategies. 

What does the economic analysis look like when occupant health and building reoccupation costs are included? Clear facts and business models are essential to balance the costs of safety interventions against the value of lives saved, yet data are scarce.

Putting a price on a human life is both impossible and unseemly. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant said it cannot be done because each of us is irreplaceable and, therefore, invaluable. Chemists, on the other hand, take a more tangible approach to this question. Analysis of the chemical composition of a human body and the fair market value of the ingredients (oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, calcium, and phosphorus) shows that a 150-pound bag of human being chemicals could be sold for approximately $926. Clearly, chemists are missing some of the other dimensions of being human. 

As you move up the value chain, the numbers increase. Health insurance companies say that one year of good health is worth $50,000. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) takes an even more holistic approach. Before a new regulation is mandated, the EPA asks one question, “Do the benefits outweigh the costs?” To answer this, the number of deaths prevented is multiplied by the value of each life saved. A calculation known as the value of a statistical life (VSL) takes an oblique approach to finding an answer by researching how much money people are willing to pay to reduce the probability of their own death. Using the VSL, the EPA places the value of one life (although no one wants to use that term) at about $10 million. 

If the VSL calculation is used to evaluate safety regulations, such as seat belt requirements, why can’t it be used to enforce healthy IAQ? There are at least two reasons why this does not work. Determining even an approximate VSL requires both perception of the risk and an ability to make choices to avert the danger. Often, neither of these variables are present when low levels of pollutants exist in tightly sealed buildings. Some aspects of building design and operation, such as fire codes, are rigorously regulated. Unfortunately, IAQ-related health problems are harder to link to the building and therefore can escape awareness and regulation.  

What do we need to have a better understanding of the hidden building conditions associated with disease? Health impacts, previously considered outside the expertise of the construction industry, cannot remain unmeasured and unregulated. To make this change, we need real-time visibility of IAQ metrics that directly impact occupant health. Collecting these data are now absolutely essential.

The good news is that the unification of medicine, building science, and business will create one of the most immense health and business opportunities of our lifetimes.