A summary of the HEMAC Network Symposium, Glasgow

The ASBP’s Richard Broad attended the first symposium of the HEMAC Network, an AHRC funded programme that aims to bridge the gap between the fields of indoor air quality, health, sustainability and the built environment and provide a platform for discussion and collaboration.

The event was held at the famous Glasgow School of Art, and we were given a welcome to the building from Tom Inns, GSA Director. The event was chaired by Prof. Tim Sharpe who leads the Mackintosh Environmental Architecture Research Unit (MEARU) at the institution, and has been undertaking pioneering research into low-energy, user-centred design for 20 years.

Prof. Raymond Agius, University of Manchester encouraged the use of low VOC products and gave some examples of where chemicals in furnishing products had caused adverse reactions in humans. He mentioned one case when an office worker in a newly decorated building had been exposed to isothiazolinone, a chemical compound found in water-based paint, which had led to the person developing dermatitis.

He suggested that as a ‘rule of thumb’, any product or material that produces a smell should be used with caution. Even air fresheners which are labelled as ‘natural’ and are plant-based may be irritants as in their natural environment the smell a plant creates is often used a repellent.

Ian Mawditt, a building research and ventilation specialist at Four Walls, has undertaken numerous monitoring studies of ventilation systems in modern, air-tight homes such as Passivhaus.


He concluded that in general, ventilation systems do not perform to minimum standards, and these standards may be insufficient anyway. Also, most monitoring studies measure homes that are at least one year old and therefore do not take into effect off-gassing of materials in the first year of occupancy.

Dr. Sani Dimitroulopoulou, UKIEG and Public Health England, highlighted that there was a lack of policies regarding indoor air quality (IAQ), with far more research into overheating in buildings. She noted that the ‘Every Breath We Take’ report is one of only a few that highlights the importance, and lack of research into IAQ.

She mentioned that there is ‘circle of blame’ culture in the industry, with lots of players (manufacturers, house-builders, government organisations, owners) all with different agendas. There needs to be a more collaborative approach in order for more research into IAQ to occur.

She also revealed that Public Health England (PHE) have been invited to advise on new NICE guidelines for indoor air pollution.

Dr. Atze Boerstra, BBA Indoor Environmental Consultancy gave us an overview of ventilation in housing in the Netherlands. Almost all new dwellings have MVHR (mechanical ventilation with heat recovery) or MEV (mechanical extract ventilation) and the systems are much better understood by the general public.

There has been significant news in the national press about the associated problems of these systems such as poor IAQ, noise, draughts and health problems, which has led to parliament commissioning a research project to help understand what is causing it.

BBA were chosen to lead a monitoring study of 300 single family homes throughout the Netherlands with both MVHR and MEV systems. Ventilation rates and noise levels were measured, but not CO2 or TVOCs.

After comparing the results with Dutch Building Regulations, it was found that most air supply rates were insufficient, even when the systems were on the ‘high’ setting. This was due to both poor design and installation of systems, and has led to Dutch regulations on this becoming stricter.

Interestingly, although poor hygiene in systems was recognised as a problem such as excess dust in supply ducts and dirty filters, the internal hygiene of systems is still not on the agenda of the regulatory bodies, compared to the VDI 6022 standard in Germany where it is regulatory to meet certain requirements.


Prof. Jan Sundell gave us a brief history of ventilation in homes, the associated health impacts and how the focus of research topics have changed over the years – e.g. dust mites, VOC levels, asbestos and damp. He highlighted the fact that ‘we spend most of our time indoors, yet studies into indoor air quality is one of the least explored areas’.

The HEMAC network will be holding a workshop on 30th November to elaborate on the findings of the symposium and establish potential areas for research and collaboration.

For more information on the HEMAC network, visit https://hemacnetwork.com/.

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