Indoor Air Quality and Community Resilience

While research around combating climate change has historically focused on energy use and external greenhouse gas emissions, recent studies target a more in-depth characterization of how both indoor (e.g., printers and copiers, radiant heaters, aging carpet) and outdoor emission sources (e.g., tobacco smoke, suspended soils, traffic exhaust) degrade the built environment. This research aims to quantify the impact energy efficiency responses have on improvements in ambient air quality, which in turn may further elucidate community-wide progress to improve indoor air quality (IAQ) both in residential and commercial buildings. Exposure to ambient air pollution may exacerbate the effects poor indoor environmental quality (IEQ) has on community health and quality of life, considering Americans spend 90% of their time indoors (EPA 2015). 

The Pittsburgh 2030 Districts 

Comprised of 85 business owners/partners, 438 properties, and 76 million square feet of space, the Pittsburgh 2030 District , has joined the Architecture 2030 Challenge to achieve 50% reductions in water use, energy consumption, and carbon emissions by the year 2030. Fourteen cities across the nation have joined the Architecture 2030 Challenge; unique to the Pittsburgh 2030 Districts is the inclusion of dynamic life cycle assessment (D-LCA) based models and real-time pollutant monitoring to develop urban GHG inventories from external and internal emission sources.


Indoor air quality (IAQ) assessments have been conducted in seven representative buildings ranging from green certified (LEED Platinum, Living Building Challenge, etc.) to conventional buildings. Seasonal concentrations of ozone, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, temperature, relative humidity, formaldehyde, total volatile organic compounds, black carbon, and particulate matter, are monitored in each building; the results are used to identify potential source points and hotspots that impact declining employee health and productivity. 


HVAC system modifications that change ventilation or filtration rates can have an impact on IAQ, whereas almost any energy use reduction can have an indirect impact by reducing emissions from the upstream processes used in power generation inclusive of – but broader than – the energy conservation district (ECD) itself. Internal health and productivity impacts from external sources will be somewhat lowered, but internal impacts from internal sources have to be further quantified. These types of tradeoffs or synergies have been identified conceptually, but the development of a indoor environmental quality and dynamic life cycle assessment framework (IEQ+DLCA) has significant promise to improve the quantification and regional variability in these measures.


Resilient Communities 

Since the early 1980s, hundreds of studies have concluded that low-income and minority communities are imposed with a higher burden of ecological contamination from industrial and consumer practices (Mohai 2009). Consensus within academia, amongst public health experts and environmental health researchers, conclude that industrial land use patterns and ambient air quality exposure, coupled with socioeconomic strata show strong evidence of persistence in environmental health disparities (Morello-Frosch 2005).


Our research has helped develop and enhance the Environmental Justice Community Alert Matrix (EJCAM) program to mitigate air quality risk in and throughout Pittsburgh through citizen-science, civic engagement, and resident trainings in vulnerable communities. For our citizen science research, we have implemented an resident inclusive Air Monitoring Bike Campaign to contribute to developing areas of air monitoring, data quality, and citizen science. Mobile monitoring campaigns have been integrated in air quality studies for their high spatial resolution in urban environments. For civic engagement and training piece, we have spearheaded the Urban Transition Cities Movement (UTCM) and Community Action Team (CAT) workshops designed to mobilize communities through pre- and post-education that incorporates longer-term efficacy of multifaceted engineering intervention approaches.


We installed two stationary monitoring sites in Larimer, Pittsburgh, as a key element in conducting a longitudinal study addressing the relationship between air quality and a community’s quality of life. Indoor air quality (IAQ) assessments were conducted in 21 homes and coupled with the results of a quality of life survey, developed from the Center for Disease Control and World Health Organization, to uncover statistical relationships between the built environment and perceived quality of life. Pressing issues from poverty to crime are at the forefront of environmental justice communities, leaving the topics of indoor air quality and environmental sustainability untouched; this research filled the gap in the literature.   



Funding Sources
Associated Publications

Rickenbacker, H.J., Bilec, M.M.* (2020 accepted). “Engaging communities in air pollution research: Investigating the effects of indoor air quality and the built environment on quality of life.” Accepted, ASCE Journal of Architectural Engineering.

Rickenbacker, H.J., Collinge, W.O., Hasik, V., Ciranni, A., Smith, I., Colao, P., Sharrard, A.L., Bilec, M.M.* (2020). “Development of a Standardized Protocol and Data-Driven Survey Instrument for Indoor Air Quality Assessments in Energy Conservation Districts.” Sustainable Cities and Society, 52(2020) 101831.

Rickenbacker, H.J., Brown, F., Bilec, M.M.* (2019).  “Creating Environmental Consciousness in Environmental Justice Communities: Implementation and Outcomes of Community-Based Environmental Justice and Air Pollution Research.”  Sustainable Cities and Society, 47(2019), 101473.  

Rickenbacker, H. J., Collinge, W. O., Hasik, V., & Bilec, M. M. (2016). Indoor Air Quality Assessments of Diverse Buildings in an Energy Conservation District from a Life Cycle Assessment Lens. 207-210. doi:10.1145/2993422.2993424

Collinge, W.C., Landis, A.E., Jones, A., Schaefer, L., Bilec, M.M. (2013). “A Dynamic Life Cycle Assessment: Framework and Application to an Institutional Building.” International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 18(3), 538-552.