Here's a Reason to Open Your Windows

June 19, 2005

New Straits Times (Malaysia)

PUTEH Kamariah Mohamad wants to see winds of change. Literally. If all Malaysians were to open their windows regularly, it would be a great start to improving indoor environment quality. "Sound so simple, doesn't it?" she says. "Most people don't know that their indoor air might be dirtier than outdoors." It's an ironic concept to sell to Malaysians who, over the years, have learned to take poor air quality outside the house as a fact of life, and to politely call it "haze".

But with air-conditioners being installed and the entire house continuously sprayed with air-fresheners, disinfectants, pesticides and chemical cleaners in pursuit of cleanliness, many urban homes have in fact become traps for mould, allergens and poisons to which Malaysians are already reacting. If that isn't enough, there are homes whose atmosphere is constantly fed with tobacco smoke. "Many Malaysians have heard of the sick building syndrome. What's happening is that our homes are getting sick too," Puteh stresses. Puteh, head of the Public Works Department's healthcare facilities division, recently convened a seminar on indoor environment quality for 200 women, all members of Puspanita, the organisation of women in government. The idea is for the participants to take the message to other women - and men. It is a grassroots approach to getting more Malaysians to think about the quality of their indoor environment.

The other approach is top-down, with Works Minister Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu having announced the development of the Malaysian Institute of Indoor Environment Quality (MIIEQ) to spearhead efforts to raise awareness of indoor environment quality and bring it into the consciousness of building designs.

The initiative is led by the Ministry of Works in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and courses have started to be conducted for professionals. Participants include developers, engineers, architects, interior designers and others from the building trade as well as people from the health industry like microbiologists and doctors. The proposed institute will also work with manufacturers of plastics, paints, furniture, glues, fabrics and other materials which end up in homes and offices. All of these materials emit compounds that affect the indoor environment. "This institute will eventually engage in R&D, particularly in respect of the environmental needs of a hot, humid tropical country like ours." The Ministry of Works is taking the lead in part because the Public Works Department is the country's largest builder of indoor air space - besides being the oldest and single biggest developer of structures.

And there was the flashpoint it faced a few months ago. Fungi - believed to be from gardens and earthworks in the vicinity - invaded the newly-built Sultan Ismail Specialist Hospital in Johor, delaying its opening. Decontamination works are under way.

That provided the impetus for efforts to raise the national awareness of indoor environment quality, which Works Ministry officials hope will translate into a household imperative.

"The ideal house is well-ventilated, energy-efficient, structurally sound and aesthetically attractive," says Puteh, an architect. "The indoor environment is governed by air, noise, lighting, ergonomics, materials and pests control. We are all searching for the perfect balance that offers us comfort and safety." But Malaysians have a tendency to rely on thermal comfort as the barometer of indoor air quality. If the temperature and humidity feel okay, then most people think everything is okay. But ambient temperatures in many buildings, and increasingly in many homes, is determined by air-conditioners which may in fact worsen air quality. Ironically, it is rising affluence that's to blame.

Still, analysts say that air-conditioning do help to keep productivity up in workplaces. And modern hospitals are designed on the basis that they are air-conditioned although just a generation ago, no Malaysian would have expected an air-conditioned room in a medical centre of any description.

"If you think about it, Malaysians spend most of their time in enclosed spaces," says Puteh. "Some of these air spaces have little or no exchange with outdoor air. That's our concern." For far too many people, that could be as high as 90 per cent of the time. Consider a day like this: house > car > basement > office > canteen > car > gym > mall > restaurant > car > house > bed. Only the few minutes spent getting in and out of the car is actually outdoors.

All buildings, says Puteh, need a green belt of sorts. "It's the relationship between the indoors of that building and the outside," she says. "It will need to be a balanced relationship, the design will have to be intelligent enough to achieve that. The idea emphasises the importance of trees and landscaping, and this relationship begins from the time the building is conceived." In the old days, most buildings featured an indoors-meets-outdoors relationship. Houses in the tropics had high ceilings, abundant windows, verandas and stilts which kept them cool and ventilated throughout the day. Bathrooms, laundry rooms and kitchens were outside of the main house which kept mould out as well.

Tall, leafy trees were planted in strategic locations to serve as windbreakers to protect buildings and farms from violent weather and dust. Walls were coated with limewash, on which mould could not grow. Indeed, until the 1950s, few homes would have volatile organic compounds - the chemicals we use to clean our premises.

"Obviously, we cannot go backwards to achieve this," says Puteh.

"Instead, we want to introduce design devices that make our homes comfortable and safe." For about two decades, Malaysians have had to tolerate poorly ventilated homes, especially link houses. This forces them to renovate.

But the easier way seemed to be just to install air-conditioning.

"The proposed institute will promote the green building concept," says Puteh, "as this will, at the end of the day, ensure the creation of healthy and comfortable homes." The green building concept will introduce an audit based on a points-system in respect of various imperatives. These include the land itself, water and energy-efficiency, materials used, and innovation and design. Energy-efficiency and indoor air quality are allotted the highest share of the points. Smoking would be banned in such a building and high scores could earn the owners/operators tax breaks and other incentives.