When Toronto interior designer Andrea Kantelberg began pitching developers on a “healthy” condo concept about five years ago, she didn’t get many nibbles. After all, builders weren’t having any difficulty at all moving apartments to both buyers and investors. Fast forward to 2020, she says, and all that reticence has disappeared. “There’s endless interest due to the pandemic.”
Indeed, besides concerns about airborne transmission of the virus, especially indoors, many people are trying to bolster the livability and sense of safety in home environments that now double as offices, classrooms, daycares and fitness nooks.
To that end, Ms. Kantelberg, through her firm Evolved Living, has fitted out a 2,500-square-foot prototype condo in a downtown building. Dubbed The WELLington, it’s fitted out with a wide range of wellness features, from more standard amenities – e.g., natural wood finishes, water purification devices – to explicitly health-focused systems, especially those connected to the unit’s air circulation. Several features are explicitly meant to mitigate the risk of respiratory illness and microbe transmission, including the coronavirus. Others aim to improve sleep patterns and reduce anxiety, an acknowledgment of the mental-health disruptions so tied to the pandemic.
“We looked at simple things that made people feel better,” she says. “It’s about creating a mindful ecosystem of different components that impact health and well-being and taking into consideration how people want to feel.”
Her firm is by no means the only one pitching health and wellness (read: COVID-proof) as a design promise. In recent months, developers, architects, building components manufacturers and some consumer-appliance firms have charged into what has begun to look like a burgeoning market, raising questions for consumers about how to distinguish between the genuine article and pandemic top-spin.
Herewith, a short user’s guide to building health investments.
INDOOR AIR QUALITY (IAQ)
This is the hottest of hot-button topics, as everyone from engineers to epidemiologists has focused on the contentious question of the degree to which the coronavirus can circulate indoors. Earlier this week, for example, the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers slammed the provincial government for not putting enough emphasis on the importance of ventilation and air filtration in limiting the spread of the virus through infected aerosol particles.
Ms. Kantelberg’s design addressed IAQ in several ways: The unit has its own HVAC system instead of shared air, as well as an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) with medical-grade carbon filters to improve ventilation.
The WELLington employs its own HVAC system, along with medical-grade filtration, to ensure clean air.
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David Elfstrom, an energy engineer in Norfolk County, says ventilation and filters are proven ways to improve indoor air quality, with “compartmentalization” as an effective way of ensuring that odours and other airborne particles don’t move between units. For filters, he says MERV 12 or 13 are fine enough to capture bacteria and fine particulates.
IAQ expert Jeffrey Siegel, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto, agrees, and adds that the most important detail is to ensure proper ventilation. “Pay attention to your HVAC system, increase ventilation to the extent possible, maintain and use the system well,” he says. “An ERV can be part of a well-functioning system.”
The WELLington features a pair of UV germicidal lamps meant to deactivate mould and bacteria or viruses, Ms. Kantelberg says. While UV is installed in hospitals and some institutional buildings to disinfect surfaces, Mr. Elfstrom cautions that consumers should approach claims about UV devices with “some skepticism.” “These systems absolutely do work, but they have to be designed properly.”
The WELLington uses UV lamps to deactivate viruses and bacteria.
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In hospitals, they’re typically installed in duct systems or the upper regions of large rooms. In residential settings, however, Mr. Elfstrom says there’s a risk they can produce ozone, which can create respiratory problems if inhaled, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Ms. Kantelberg says the UV lamps she uses are non-ozone producing, but Mr. Elfstrom notes that consumers should have such devices tested independently instead of relying on manufacturers’ claims.
There’s definitely opportunistic marketing taking place in this segment. In a notification released last November, Health Canada issued a warning to consumers to avoid gadgets like UV wands and lights that “falsely claim to disinfect against COVID-19.”
Especially in the winter months, HVAC systems in houses and apartments must maintain proper humidity levels to help ensure health. When the air is overheated and too dry, it can trigger cracking in mucous membranes, making them more vulnerable to infections. If the humidity is too high, condensation on indoor surfaces like windows can produce mould illnesses.
Prof. Siegel also notes that overly dry air hastens evaporation and increases infection risk because exhaled droplets that may contain viruses or bacteria can travel further. Mr. Elfstrom says the optimal indoor humidity range is 40 to 60 per cent.
Ms. Kantelberg’s design calls for a double humidifier, and these devices are available at a range of price points, from a few hundred dollars to over $1,000.
The WELLington design calls for a pair of humidifiers.
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But health authorities have long cautioned consumers about humidifiers, and these warnings have additional salience with the pandemic. A recent notice from Public Health Ontario, for example, points out that cool mist humidifiers “can release aerosols containing dissolved minerals and opportunistic pathogens into the air. Therefore, many public health and health care institutions restrict their use.”
As Prof. Siegel says, “Humidification if not done well and maintained appropriately can cause a moisture problem that has a host of negative health consequences. Humidification is not something that you want to do on the cheap.”