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Last edited 05 Jan 2022
Let us evolve our buildings from being passive structures to interactive and reactive systems
Until the outbreak of this global pandemic in 2020, there was plenty of frustration around the slow pace of technology adoption within the built environment. Whilst other industries had made good progress, teams of builders were struggling to meet minimum building performance standards. Inefficient processes left much room for improvement. New homes often failed to meet low-energy targets, and to satisfy residents with fundamental issues such as ease of use, summer comfort and energy costs. There is far too little building performance evaluation (BPE) happening routinely on projects to close the performance gap.
 How COVID-19 changed our building sector
The pandemic can be credited with pushing the built environment sector in the right direction. Many processes have changed, and there is no need to go back to the way it was. The technological advances that would have happened over the next few decades have now been achieved, due to the pandemic’s dramatic acceleration of technology adoption.
Most buildings are tested for airtightness, air permeability and air leaks with outdated and intrusive technology, making tests difficult, time consuming and expensive. Yet it is critical to quickly locate and accurately quantify air leaks in rooms and buildings.
There is one solution from Coltraco Ultrasonics who have brought testing for airtightness, and air permeability into the 21st Century. Air leaks with a diameter as small as 0.5mm can now be detected and quickly located with the Portascanner® AIRTIGHT 520.
 Buildings, airtightness and ventilation
In March 2020, the world as we knew it fundamentally and suddenly changed, however, innovation continued to evolve and thrive. There was an urgent requirement within the NHS to prevent infection spread in hospitals and contain the virus by maintaining negatively pressurised ICU wards and ensuring their airtightness.
The UK Government put out a COVID-19 emergency response grant through InnovateUK for technology to help the NHS. In June 2020 Coltraco Ultrasonics was one of the winners. The grant was for adapting their already award-winning watertight integrity technology into technology suitable for room airtight testing.
Like many businesses, Coltraco Ultrasonics was transformed by the pandemic. In just eight months Coltraco Ultrasonics had successfully designed and manufactured two innovative solutions - one to help the NHS and healthcare settings with infection control and the other to help the building sector to ensure effective ventilation through airtightness. Arising from the need to contain the spread of airborne diseases, Coltraco Ultrasonics swiftly saw the demand for this leak detection technology to be re-designed for the built environment.
Portascanner® AIRTIGHT 520 is a solution to ensure that buildings are airtight so that people can be confident that they are returning to “safe buildings” and “safe working conditions” with proper ventilation. This is to ensure that all ventilation systems are operating effectively, thereby enhancing indoor air quality (IAQ) which has now become a vital issue.
No alternative leak measuring technologies measure the leak size directly. Instead, they are inferred from pressure differences of airflow measurements, which are assumed to be taken at constant temperature and pressure (something that in reality, is never the case). This means that alternative technologies have inaccuracies that may be minimised - but not eliminated entirely - by highly skilled operators using manual calculators.
For the first time, with minimal training, the user can locate a leak, quantify the leak site, calculate the air flow rate through it and generate an air permeability value for the room. You can then take accurate remedial action where necessary and have full confidence in both the airtightness of your room and the effectiveness of your ventilation in circulating clean air.
 Solving the problem of clean air
Human resources and facilities management teams are tasked with keeping buildings and spaces comfortable, sustainable, efficient, safe, healthy and well maintained, and this list keeps growing as buildings, including residential buildings, are expected to deliver more. More can include addressing the effects of climate change by making a building more energy efficient. More after this pandemic will include a critical appraisal of IAQ.
Seventy percent of the world’s population spends an estimated 90% of its time indoors, and the World Health Organisation estimates that in 2020 there were more than six million premature deaths due to air pollution - much of this attributed to poor IAQ. Digitalisation has the power to evolve buildings from being fixed, passive structures into highly interactive and richly informative systems. Homes are becoming more autonomous so that the mechanical components inside of the spaces created can ensure that occupants are safer, healthier and more comfortable.
 Addressing air pollution
Air filtration has never been considered a hot topic, but reflecting on what we know now, perhaps it should have been. Air quality plays an important role in our physical and mental health, and with COVID-19, good air filtration could mean the difference between sick and healthy - and in some cases, life and death.
A fundamental requirement for energy efficient mechanical ventilation and for effective air filtration is achieving a minimum level of air tightness in buildings. Air pollution is an increasing concern, as is maintaining an adequate level of oxygen within the built environment.
The air we breathe is made up of multiple gases. However, for a human to function normally, the air must contain enough oxygen. Under normal atmospheric pressure we normally inhale air that contains 20.9% oxygen; if this falls even by one or 2%, then functionality starts to become more laborious and the environment turns hypoxic, meaning that oxygen levels are low and could be harmful. Humans, like fires, need to have a constant and assured level of oxygen, and as we consume oxygen, more must be delivered to us.
COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic disease we will suffer, but our spaces will be better prepared for when the next one strikes. Frequent, regular and periodic testing for air tightness, air permeability (and quickly locating and quantifying air leaks in buildings so that immediate remedial action may be taken) is now possible. IAQ is a key issue in building design for homes, offices, hospitals, schools and factories. Our living and workplaces, be they at our homes or elsewhere, are where we need to be safe and productive.
This pandemic has shown the true value of good ventilation systems in buildings. There is a newfound respect for a hitherto poorly understood area of building engineering services. As we move on from a Government rescue plan to a Government recovery plan, an essential component of “Build back better” should include frequent, regular and periodic, mandatory testing for air tightness in the built environment. Thanks to Coltraco Ultrasonics and their Portascanner® AIRTIGHT 520 this is now a faster, better and cheaper process.
This article originally appeared in the Architectural Technology Journal (at) issue 138 published by CIAT in summer 2021. It was written by Bernard Hornung, Head of Operations, Built Environment, Coltraco Ultrasonics.
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