In 2016, Newsweek released its June edition with a cover showing the Grim Reaper standing idly next to an office water cooler. The headline blared: “Your office is killing you”.

The story wasn’t about the perils of working overtime or rising stress levels. Rather, it was concerned with the pollution levels of our buildings – also known as ‘indoor air quality’ (IAQ). 

While the moniker is self-explanatory, the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) notes that there “is no single accepted definition” for IAQ. So, we turned the question to Raphael Siket, director of building biology company Ecolibria. His explanation involves juxtaposing IAQ with outdoor air quality.

“Because we spend so much of our time indoors (Australians spend 90 percent or more of their time inside buildings), IAQ is incredibly important,” he says. This is especially [worrisome] when you consider that the level of pollutants or contaminants within our buildings is often twice or more than outdoor levels.

Take carbon dioxide (CO2), for example. Siket explains that the Building Biology Standard recommends 700 parts per million (ppm) on average of CO2 exposure indoors over an eight-hour period ( known as time-weighted average, or TWA).

“This is approximately double the 350-450ppm levels typically found outdoors, and should not go any higher than that,” he says.

Yet, the National Construction Code’s (NCC) exposure benchmark for CO2 is even higher, at 850ppm. Then there’s Safe Work Australia, which allows up to 5,000ppm of CO2 as a TWA over eight hours. In Siket’s words, “it’s not very good”. 

Exposure Standards based on TWAs for Carbon Dioxide
Exposure Standards based on TWAs for Carbon Monoxide 


The repercussions of sub-optimal IAQ in office buildings have been well-known for some time. For decades, it’s been associated with health and comfort problems such as allergies, and skin, nose and throat irritation – or Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). Poor IAQ can also cause fatigue and concentration difficulties. A 2015 study found that cognitive function scores were “15 percent lower for the moderate CO2 day (~945ppm) and 50 percent lower on the day with CO2 concentrations around 1400ppm. On average, a 400ppm increase in CO2 was associated with a 21 percent decrease in cognitive function scores”. 

This means that even if an office falls within Australian IAQ guidelines, it could still cause SBS and diminished productivity. Some of the major culprits behind these problems include:

  • Biological contaminants such as bacteria, moulds, pollen and viruses. “HVAC systems typically strip moisture from air to condition it. But when that happens, mould can grow on the heating or cooling coils,” Siket explains.
  • Chemical contaminants, which may be emitted from occupants’ personal care products, such as aftershaves and perfumes. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are off-gassed from office furnishings and finishes (think paints, adhesives, carpets, upholstery, engineered wood products) are more sinister, causing acute health effects and even cancer.
  • Particulates – such as dust – can also contribute to poor IAQ. Occupants regularly bring dust into buildings on their skin, clothes and shoes. However, a well-maintained and purified office should present no major problems. 


Although indoor air pollution may present several comfort and safety issues, ensuring excellent IAQ in our workspaces is not difficult. In fact, most Green Star-certified buildings will boast significantly better indoor air quality simply because they follow stricter guidelines. Here are some easy ways to improve a project’s IAQ.

1. Better ventilation

For many offices in Australia that feature only fixed glazing, occupants are completely dependent on the building’s HVAC system for fresh air. However, this becomes a problem when air handling units draw in only 10 percent (or less) of outdoor air – a percentage that isn’t uncommon. This means any contaminants that are brought indoors often get recirculated rather than expelled. Investing in good HVAC systems that draw in significantly more outdoor air while filtering out any contaminants is one way to improve the office IAQ; and a worthwhile cost that will pay off in the long run. 

Take for example Frasers Head Office, designed by BVN in conjunction with Frasers Property’s commercial division. Completed in September 2016, the project features significant air conditioning upgrades to bring in more outdoor air and higher filtration. This is complemented by a design that sees open common areas spill out to two balconies–giving employees better access to fresh air and the outdoors.

The Frasers Head Office is one of the first office fitout projects in Australia to target both 6 Star Green Star Interiors v1.1 and WELL certifications. In addition to HVAC upgrades, the project also features indoor plants and trees up to three metres high that help improve indoor environmental quality and connection to nature

Another way for architects to influence office IAQ and ventilation is by installing operable windows. The WWF Australian Headquarters in Sydney, designed by Intermain with ESD consultants DesignEco, combines a state-of-the-art ventilation system that maximises the flow of outdoor air, with operable windows that allow workers to catch the breeze.

According to the WWF, these initiatives allow the air-conditioning to stay off on for what they term as ‘nice’ days. 

The WWF Australian Headquarters designed by Intermain with DesignEco

2. Source control

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the most effective way to improve IAQ is to eliminate individual sources of pollution or contaminants. When it comes to VOCs, this means specifying low- or no-VOC products.

Two companies that are setting notable benchmarks for products that are typically high in VOCs are Tarkett Australia, whose floorings emit less than 100μg/m3 of VOCs (TVOC after 28 days); and Interface Australia, whose low-emitting VOC carpets are complemented by a glueless TacTiles adhesive that further reduces indoor VOC levels.

Ecolour is another brand to keep an eye on. Not only are its paints completely VOC-free, they also carry Australian Paint Approval Scheme (APAS) and Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA) certifications.  

Indeed, choosing products that are certified by a recognised body such as GECA is a foolproof way to ensure low- or zero-VOC emissions, and Siket warns against selecting a product based purely on its odour.

“Just because you can’t ‘smell’ the VOCs, doesn’t mean they are not there,” he says. “Certain companies may simply formulate or manufacture their products with an odour suppressant.” 

3. Going green

According to the GBCA, plants are a great way to reduce airborne concentrations of VOCs. This, in addition to releasing moisture into the air, absorbing heat and noise, and even improving worker productivity.

Just look at Lendlease’s new global headquarters in Sydney’s Barangaroo South. The much-celebrated project features a six-metre green wall by Junglefy, designed to accelerate the removal of CO2 and VOCs. According to UTS researchers, the wall removes over 24 litres of carbon dioxide per hour – the highest recorded carbon dioxide removal rate recorded in scientific literature. 

The green wall at Lendlease's global headquarters in Sydney's Barangaroo South 

4. Tools for awareness

Generating awareness is another simple way to ensure consistently good IAQ. There are several tools on the market designed to measure and monitor the air quality in offices. One such system in Australia is SAMBA, a compact device developed by a group of researchers from the University of Sydney’s Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) lab. Using sensors, the unit measures the key factors shown to have the greatest impact on an office worker’s health and comfort: air temperature and speed, humidity, light, sound and air pollutants. 

SAMBA (Sentient Ambient Monitoring of Buildings in Australia), a pioneering technology developed at the University of Sydney 

In 2016, hundreds of SAMBA units were rolled out across approximately 50 offices in Australia’s capital cities. The data captured was relayed back to a central computer for further analysis, and compared to IEQ performance standards set by Green Star and NABERS.

“This new technology offers an effective and user-friendly method of collecting accurate IEQ metrics and data that doesn’t require any major modifications to our building systems,” saysShaun Condon, general manager of Environment and Safety at Investa, one of the participating organisations.

“It will give us the evidence to pinpoint what IEQ data is important and how to best capture, analyse and effectively report this information back to our tenants to improve their workplace environments.”