Building Safety and Efficiency Post COVID-19

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Building Safety and Efficiency Post COVID-19

Building Safety and Efficiency Post COVID-19

01 Jul 2020 Long Read
CW’s webinar discussed guidelines in view of the pandemic, the need for efficient buildings, and more.

CONSTRUCTION WORLD (CW) organised a free webinar on ‘Building Safety and Efficiency Post COVID-19’ with a distinguished set of experts. Moderated by Pratap Padode, Editor-in-Chief, CW, the panel included Ashish Rakheja, President, International Fire & Safety Association of India (FSAI); Sanjay Seth, CEO, GRIHA Council; Richie Mittal, National President, ISHRAE; and Vishal Kapur, Chair-Technical Committee, ISHRAE.

Safety in buildings

“The National Building Code (NBC) lays down several provisions that help protect buildings from fires and enable easy evacuation, yet fires take place regularly,” began Padode. “COVID-19 has brought in another set of SOPs for safety.

An NCRB report on fire safety in India indicates that 12,748 Indians died in fires; 1,719 died from electrical short-circuits; 56 per cent of all fires are in homes; and 1,967 women died of cooking gas burst. Thirty-five Indians die of fire accidents everyday and 55 per cent of fire deaths are just from five states: Madhya Pradesh (1,986), Maharashtra (1,896), Gujarat (1,194), Chhattisgarh (976) and Odisha (897).”

On another note, he remarked that buildings use nearly 40 per cent of a city’s electric power and have begun to offer myriad services, including indoor air quality – expected to become a major performing metric – besides HVAC, maintenance services, security and, notably, fire detection.

Changes in building codes

With regard to changes required in building codes in the light of COVID-19, Seth said, “The codes are in place and cover a whole range of issues around safety, comfort and resource-efficiency. What we lack is implementation frameworks.”

He added that the current pandemic really highlights the need to adhere to planning and design. “We need to start looking at transformational changes in the buildings we design. There will be paradigm shifts in the design of various segments in real estate.”

Air quality – changes in HVAC

“We have been talking about air quality from the very beginning but as pertaining to comfort,” said Mittal. “We were talking of inducting fresh air for CO2 levels; we were trying to filter the air quality for PM 2.5 and other parameters.

Now, people will seriously think about air quality. Dilution in the air is the solution to the problem. Potentially, air quality will be the highest priority of every building.”

Here, Kapur observed, “Unfortunately, a lot of us in India are using air quality protocols, norms or suggestions possibly only for points and ratings, but the real requirement from a long-term perspective is missing. I have walked into hospitals during COVID with air-handling units running and realised there is 100 per cent outdoor air supply and the filters are just not there! So will we forget this after six months or a year?

Or will we take this seriously for the future?” Further, he added, “We have 1.2 million deaths because of air pollution and yet most people are not bothered about the air they breathe. That needs to change not just because of COVID but permanently – whether it comes in as regulations or self-awareness.”

“Our recommendations as guidelines are basically reinforcing the basics that were always part of design, but forgotten,” highlighted Rakheja.

Infra deficit in manpower strength and fire-fighting equipment

When FSAI started, this deficit was one of its major concerns, shared Rakheja. “There was so much happening on the equipment availability front in India but still a lot lacking on the infrastructure side.The challenge comes down to general awareness because fire safety should not start from the regulatory bodies but from us – for our own safety.” The association has been engaging with chief fire officers across India and carrying out demos of fire safety equipment at various buildings.

ISHRAE guidelines

Concerns have been raised about whether the spread of COVID can be accelerated or controlled by HVAC systems, depending on their design or operation (Read more in our Feature story on HVAC). ISHRAE put together a COVID Task Force including academia, designers, manufacturers, etc, across the country and brought out guidelines for air-conditioning operations. “We have covered indoor environment conditions for residential, commercial, industrial, healthcare, operations and maintenance, including start-up and restart-up of facilities, and safety dos and don'ts for technicians,” explained Kapur. “In this technical document, we have given broad recommendations for temperature, humidity and the three key aspects of the system: Ventilation, filtration and pressurisation. If these are taken care of, whatever the space or application, we are more or less safe. The ventilation and filtration that can be provided by an air-conditioning system is far more effective than simply opening windows, because a mechanical system will properly ventilate the space and improve indoor air quality with outdoor air filtration.

So even in COVID, air-conditioning and ventilation systems can be safely operated in residential, commercial and healthcare spaces with specific controls for temperature, humidity and the amount of outdoor air coming in, maintaining hygiene levels and improving filtration points.”

Speaking of retrofitting existing systems, Kapur said, “You need a specialised qualified designer or contractor. That said, most systems can be retrofitted or modified without changing the entire system.You would need to change some components or parts. For example, our document says you can add a smaller treated fresh air unit to bring in fresh air or find other ways without changing the entire system. But again, these are required anyway, not only because of COVID.”

Guidelines on fire safety

Fire safety is an important aspect while restarting buildings after the lockdown. “FSAI set up a Task Force to develop guidelines on how the fire system should be restarted,” said Rakheja. “It then comes down to operations.”

Building fitness guidelines

Meanwhile, GRIHA has created a Building Fitness Indicator tool. “We have considered various guidelines and checklists from the World Health Organisation, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, ISHRAE, Central Pollution Control Board, etc,” said Seth. “Using these, we have created a tool to assess how safe and secure your place is, to build some amount of confidence into people going back to work.”

How can building efficiency play a role in mitigating costs?

It is a no-brainer that green buildings not only save energy, water and waste but are also healthier to work and live in. Green buildings provide an evidence-based framework to ensure our future building stock is not only resource-efficient but low carbon. “At the same time, it is important to bust the myth about the incremental cost of going green,” pointed out Seth. “If you were to evaluate right from the planning of these buildings to operations, even during construction, the costs of these buildings don't go high.”

There is clearly a cost reduction if you follow some protocols, said Mittal. “So cost reduction is one angle on the commercial side.

On the residential side, probably just 5-6 per cent of people will use air-conditioning for residential applications. As of now, we recommend cost analysis be done on a life-cycle basis, not on the basis of initial or running costs. Then, there will be a better understanding of the saving.”

One lesson of the pandemic is that we cannot afford the luxury of not going green any further. “With the current crisis, green buildings become a huge opportunity for economic revival as well,” said Seth.

Is high cost associated with technology an obstruction?

In Rakheja’s view, adoption of construction technology has been poor in India owing to the lack of viability of the business environment. Whether it is a consultant, contractor or developer, profit margins have been very low. “Coming to IoT-based solutions, they don't cost much,” he added. “I can get a decent automation system installed from `25 to `40 a sq ft. In a building that costs `2,500-3,000 a sq ft, `35-40 per sq ft for automation is not a big one. The challenge is lack of trust in these technologies; automation doesn’t work because of the poor labour we deploy and poor training in our industry. Also, the technology has been so fast changing that understanding at a designer and user level is still not complete.”

According to Kapur, the people who understand the technology do not understand the applications, and vice-versa. “You don’t have the right people operating the systems; you don’t have the same person understanding the technology and the application. Narrowing this gap is the only way clients can actually get the benefits. The education of the entire spectrum – from the operator and designer to the implementer and person conceiving the whole system – has to be thorough. Till then, I don’t see technology improving much in India.”

The healthy buildings we are talking about in the COVID era are an integral part of green building design, points out Rakheja. One challenge he highlights is that ‘green’ has still been elite. “It has not filtered down to the bottom level. That’s where the disconnect is – we have not connected with the common person.”

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