Higher ed can overcome COVID with healthy buildings

Implementing air quality improvements requires little or no upfront capital
By: | February 3, 2021
(AdobeStock/JUNHO)(AdobeStock/JUNHO)

For the higher education industry, the 2020-2021 school year represents a moment of existential survival.  The COVID-19 pandemic has placed the higher education business and revenue models under heightened scrutiny.

Parents and students are increasingly wondering why they’re paying full tuition for an online experience and are questioning the value of remote learning. Colleges and universities must placate these key constituencies while facing the prospect of reduced tuition streams and looming budget crises.

The lessons from this pandemic will persist long after the coronavirus fades from the public consciousness. The flu and other viruses will provide multiple reasons to optimize indoor air quality. We will continuously see the positive impact good indoor air quality has on productivity, critical thinking and general wellness.

Indeed, the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic serve merely as an example—not the sole reason—of why we need to measure, control and communicate air quality.


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For colleges and universities, long-term solutions for getting students and teachers back in the classroom start with healthy indoor air quality. Higher education simply must ensure a closely guarded healthy environment, and there are only a few ways to do this.

Limits on physical interaction and social distancing are two key actions, but arguably the single most important thing colleges can do to protect their students is managing indoor air quality.

Dan Diehl.

Dan Diehl.

Of course, the most effective indoor air quality improvement initiatives—such as improved ventilation management—seem cost-prohibitive in a moment of stop-gap budget-cutting. University officials are likely to blanch at any infrastructure improvement that requires financing at a time when revenue streams are running lower.

But there’s good news: you can afford high quality indoor air quality. improvements. Indeed, higher education institutions can easily finance the creation of “healthy buildings” that meet both COVID-19 re-entry and longer term air quality requirements.

As an operating expenditure, the investment to implement air quality improvements requires little or no upfront capital. What’s more, these same investments can also generate energy and operational savings in the process.

Did you hear this correctly? Yes, you did— little to no upfront capital. This availability, of course, makes it easier and faster to deploy in existing buildings.

Drive savings through your indoor air quality portfolio

How is this achieved? Each higher education institution must first prioritize its own individual portfolio for indoor air quality improvement. This portfolio assessment requires each organization to identify its largest operational and energy savings potentials.

Crucially, this exercise often identifies untapped savings opportunities that exist in critical environments and other spaces with highly variable occupancy.

Look at “high revenue” university buildings, for example. These include buildings that house very large classrooms—maybe the business school building, the library, or big seminar areas that seat more than 100 students.

Focus on these buildings and get them operational in the safest way possible. Make sure you get savings from those buildings and, if done right, a university can use the savings from that investment to pay for the others.


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These savings opportunities can easily help fund such air quality improvements to create a positive cashflow implementation and a true “win-win-win” for universities, which quickly see dramatically improved air quality and lower operating costs.

Students and teachers, meanwhile, get a platform that delivers better air quality for the rooms they occupy. And building operators get a life cycle platform approach to managing and maintaining air quality over the life of the facilities.

Indoor air quality strategy through low-cost capital

Universities should take note: money is cheap right now. Whether from federal programs or private lenders, higher ed should use a combination of energy savings and low-cost capital to improve indoor air quality and create healthy buildings.

This strategy addresses higher ed’s pressing need to deploy comprehensive air quality programs through a sustainable and economic strategy for the current COVID-19 pandemic. It also addresses the undeniable future demand for healthier buildings.

This future demand is worth noting. The COVID-19 pandemic is not the sole reason higher ed must pursue healthy buildings—it’s merely an example of the need to do so. The world has awakened to the value of  indoor air quality, and healthy buildings are now a non-negotiable priority.

Higher education should be strategic and proactive to get kids and staff back on campus—not just in the current environment, but also after the pandemic has passed. Doing so helps a university’s long-term business model and its brand in the market.

Already, indoor air quality can serve as a differentiator in the competition for students, one that will soon rank as high as posh dorm rooms and state-of-the-art athletic facilities.

The right indoor air quality strategy offers the following benefits: it helps a university economically; it doesn’t cost a lot; it can be quickly implemented; and it protects students, staff and others. Higher education is facing an existential moment—you can do something about it proactively that can save your business model.

It starts with addressing the elephant in the room and communicating your proactive steps to provide improved indoor air quality for all constituents.

Dan Diehl is CEO and president of Aircuity, which designs commercial, institutional and laboratory ventilation systems.