Adapting Buildings for Indoor Air Quality in a Changing Climate
On this page:
- Climate Change, Indoor Air Quality and Building Adaptation
- Severe Weather
- Weatherization and Ventilation
- Tips to Help You and Your Home Withstand Weather Extremes and Maintain Indoor Air Quality
Climate Change, Indoor Air Quality and Building Adaptation
Climate change may worsen existing indoor environmental problems and indoor air quality, and it may also introduce new problems as the frequency or severity of adverse outdoor conditions change. Our homes and buildings, where we spend most of our time, provide protection between us and the outdoors. The design, construction, operation and maintenance of buildings can impact the air we breathe, our energy consumption, and our health. To protect all building occupants and maintain safe and healthy indoor environments, considerations for buildings should include occupant health and well being, sustainability, energy efficiency, and changing outdoor conditions.
Most U.S. homes and buildings are not new, and were built to withstand environmental conditions at the times they were built. New-construction homes and buildings may face structural and environmental challenges if future climatic conditions are not anticipated in their designs. With use, age, changes in outdoor environmental conditions, and the drive for energy efficiency, homes and buildings will undergo renovation and repair. Modifications to buildings might be made without consideration of indoor air quality and, if not properly implemented, can negatively impact human health.
There are three broad approaches to moderate indoor air pollution: source control, ventilation, and air cleaning. When buildings and homes are modified to decrease energy use, changes can occur in ventilation, infiltration (air leakage), and pressurization, creating air flow changes that can impact indoor pollutant levels. Furthermore, building upgrades can disturb existing contaminants known to cause health problems. Some of these contaminants have specific regulatory requirements (e.g., asbestos, lead) that must be followed, while many others are not regulated.
There are also building operational concerns to be considered with respect to climate change. For example, provisions for increased frequency and duration of electrical power outages should be considered due to the increased frequency and severity of storms anticipated with climate change. Methods of ventilating buildings and maintaining acceptable thermal conditions using resilient or passive design strategies can be included in building design or modification strategies.
- The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment
- EPA Energy, Weatherization and Indoor Air Quality
- Institute of Medicine Report on Climate Change, Indoor Environment and Health
- EPA’s Climate Change Adaptation Resource Center (ARC-X)
- EPA Office of Air and Radiation Climate Change Adaptation Implementation Plan
- NIST Report Indoor Environmental Issues in Disaster Resilience
- Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Climate Change - Changes In IEQ and Health Driven by Changes in the Outdoor Environment
- Indoor Air and Climate Change Readiness Fact Sheet (PDF)
Extreme temperatures, increased precipitation and storm severity can lead to increased humidity and mold growth, droughts and wildfires and proliferation of pests.
- In areas with more precipitation, there is an increased risk of flood and dampness indoors — the perfect environment for mold growth. Exposure to mold can lead to respiratory problems, such as asthma and allergies.
- Some areas may experience higher temperatures and less precipitation, resulting in more droughts and wildfires. This can result in more particulate air pollution, such as dust and smoke. The particulate air pollution can enter buildings and homes, affecting lung and heart health.
- Changes in temperature and flooding can drive pests indoors looking for shelter and food. Additionally, pest infestations are often combated with pesticides that are toxic to people, too.
Weatherization and Ventilation
More people are weatherizing (sealing and insulating) their homes and buildings to offset outdoor temperature changes and to help save energy by reducing the need for heating and cooling changes. Ventilation is an important part of a building’s heating and cooling system because it helps reduce indoor pollutants. Weatherizing without maintaining proper ventilation can negatively affect indoor air.
- Learn more about Weatherizing.
- Moisture accumulates inside homes during everyday activities such as cooking, taking showers and hanging wet laundry which increases the relative humidity level indoors. Without air ventilation, the humidity level remains high and can provide a breeding ground for mold, mites and bacteria.
- Poor ventilation also can lead to increased indoor exposure to pollutants because there isn’t any exchange with outdoor air to dilute or remove the concentration of the pollutants:
- If there is an increase in mold, bacteria or other pests due to higher humidity levels or changes in outdoor temperatures, people may use chemical products to combat infestations.
- Learn more about Biological Pollutants
Tips to Help You and Your Home Withstand Weather Extremes and Maintain Indoor Air Quality
Electric Power Outage
- Plan for an alternate power source: Consider how to provide electric power safely if floods, high winds, ice storms or other weather events result in power outages. See: Safely Provide Power for Lighting, Cooking and Heating.
- Plan for an alternate shelter: Include a backup location where you know there will be power and you will be welcome as part of your emergency plan for power loss.
- Improve the wind resistance of your house: Use the FEMA Wind Retrofit Guide for Residential Buildings to evaluate your home. The tool will provide details on how to make wind safety improvements your home. Guidance is given for three levels of protection - basic, intermediate and advanced. The guidance covers improving existing conditions or replacement if you are considering new windows, doors or roofing.
- Roof: Small changes can improve the wind resistance of your roof. Roofs are the most exposed part of the house and typically experience the most damage during high winds. High winds can damage the gable end walls and overhangs or lift the roof off the walls. Consider options to secure the roof to the house frame such as adding roof ties downs.
- Windows: Consider options such as adding shutters.
- Garage doors: Consider reinforcing double-width garage doors.
- Direct water away from your home:
- Add gutters and/or maintain gutters: Keep gutters and down spouts free of debris and leaks. Direct downspouts away from the house.
- Slope ground away from building: If rain puddles against the foundation after a storm, correct the problem by regrading the area or installing underground drainage. See DOE's Building America Solution Center for rain control details.
Heavy Snow Storms
- Prevent ice dams: Heavy snow can result in ice dams that can lead to water damage and mold growth indoors.
- Air seal between the house and attic, to prevent warm air from entering the attic and melting any snow that accumulates on the roof.
- Air seal and insulate ductwork in the attic.
- See NREL Standard Work Specifications for Home Energy Upgrades and EPA's Healthy Indoor Environment Protocols for Home Energy Upgrades.
- Keep air conditioned air out of the attic*: Air seal ductwork and air handlers in attic
- See Standard Work Specifications for Home Energy Upgrades and Healthy Indoor Environment Protocols for Home Energy Upgrades. (*Note that there are a few homes where the attic is intentionally air conditioned, and this would not apply.)
- Reduce unwanted solar heating of your home, in other words, reduce solar gains.
- Add reflective coating on the roof.
- Add reflective film on windows.
- When you reroof choose a light color.
- When you get new windows, select windows with low solar heat gain.
- See also EPA's Natural Disasters Extreme Heat website.