Why an Office Is Not a Spaceship

Screen capture. Houston, we have a CO2 problem/ Apollo 13

Employees deserve more than just good air quality.

Remember that scene from the Apollo 13 movie, where the astronauts start bouncing off the walls and yelling at each other? Then Tom Hanks looks at the CO2 levels and realizes that, Houston, we have another problem.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Christopher Mims looks at the problem of air quality in office buildings, and writes that “the newest office buildings have more in common with spaceships than you realize.” He then describes how, like in spaceships, environmental conditions are now being monitored carefully in buildings, using cheap sensors that track temperature, humidity, light, noise and odours.

It isn’t just Apple’s new campus, either. As work takes an ever more central place in our lives, engineers, architects and scientists are beginning to view our workplaces as sealed structures that must actively manage their internal environments, while mitigating pollution and other hazards that are the cost of doing business in many of the world’s most economically productive cities.

© Foster + Partners/ Fresh air intake at Apple Park

It wouldn’t be a Mims article if I didn’t have a nit to pick, and I have a few here. For one, the Apple campus may look like a space ship but in fact it is not sealed; it has a remarkable system for natural ventilation and is set in the middle of a private park full of trees. The trend in many office buildings is NOT to treat them as sealed structures.

It’s really no wonder that some offices have air quality problems; Mims talks to the CEO of a British building monitoring company, EnergyDeck, which...

... faces problems typical of startup founders everywhere: funding, morale and employees who get sleepy after lunch. But at least he has a handle on that last issue, because he’s testing his own technology in the 670-square-foot office where his 15-person team is jammed. “By 2 p.m., the CO2 level in the office is like 1,000 parts per million,” says Mr. Kott.

Well, yes, that’s 44.6 square feet per employee; no wonder they have productivity issues. The average space per employee in the UK is now 181 SF. So you are going to get an obvious buildup of CO2 and VOCs emitted from the dry cleaning, perfumes and deodorants from so many people packed together like sardines.

Fortunately, as Mims notes, there are now sensors that can control all those things that affect us, and they are not just air quality. There are all kinds of things that affect us, that make us fall asleep in the afternoon, from CO2 buildup to lack of natural light. Mims concludes his discussion with Mr. Kott and his sardines:

The solution, he says, is an HVAC system that dynamically responds to both carbon-dioxide levels and levels of airborne particulate matter, pumping in fresh air while filtering out pollutants. It’s remarkably similar to the kind of air-circulation systems that NASA uses—on spaceships.

Or, alternatively, one could give each employee enough room to actually breathe, enough air volume to actually dilute all those VOCs a bit, enough space to have some CO2 eating plants, enough windows to give natural light. A good HVAC system is obviously important, but 44 square feet per person is abuse.

fixing air

Apollo 13 fix with duct tape and cardboard/Screen capture

In Apollo 13, three astronauts were packed into a lunar module designed for two, and really were in a spaceship in a hostile environment where, when you open a window, you die. They had a problem and they fixed it with cardboard and duct tape. Even in space, they didn't need such high-tech solutions.

We don’t need such high-tech solutions on Earth; we need humane environments as well as good air and light, inside and out.