Our Hidden Air Pollution Problem and Europe’s Innovative Response

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Dr Ruaraidh Dobson | Programme Manager (Air Quality)
Enya O’Connell-Hussey | Research Impact Officer

Date: 23 November 2023

When you picture air pollution, what do you imagine? Likely dust and chemicals made by cars, factories and power plants that clog the air around us. However, air pollution isn’t just confined to the outside. It can also be found in homes, offices, vehicles, and other indoor spaces — sometimes at more dangerous levels than outside. 

Buildings and air pollution are inextricably linked. In Europe, research shows that most people spend 60% of their time at home and around 90% indoors. Surprisingly, homes often contain sources of air pollution that can lead to profoundly harmful results. Household objects we would never consider as dangerous – a gas hob, the paint on the walls, or even a vacuum cleaner – can create high levels of air pollution. Especially in Northern Europe’s colder climates, where people spend considerable time in their homes, they may unwittingly be exposed to indoor air pollutants, even when the air outside is fresh and clean. Thousands of cases of disease each year are at least partially attributable to this hidden form of air pollution. 

If we want to mitigate that harm, we need new approaches from policymakers, the construction industry and the public at large. The New European Bauhaus — a part of the European Green Deal – is an exciting programme to address those needs while driving a new level of innovation in building design and living standards across the European Union. Drawing from the storied history of the Bauhaus, the great modernist design school which promoted new concepts in international architecture in the wake of the First World War, the New European Bauhaus aims transform European societies along three values: sustainability, aesthetics, and inclusion.  

The Passivhaus movement is perhaps the best example of these three principles in action. Passivhauses are designed from the ground up to be green and energy efficient, as part of an architectural desire for sustainability. By building with care and attention to energy requirements, solar heating gain and modern insulation technology, a home or office can require far less energy for heating or cooling than has ever been possible before, making them near-carbon neutral when built and reducing the cost of living and working in them. The first Passivhauses were built more than thirty years ago in Denmark, and there are now almost 40,000 worldwide. 

But planning these measures isn’t easy. Passivhauses, for example, require careful attention to ventilation in order to maintain acceptable indoor air quality – the requirements for low energy use can conflict with the need to maintain healthy air, and can be undermined if residents feel the need to increase ventilation to improve the subjective freshness of the air. Beyond energy efficiency, new means of construction are necessary to cut the carbon footprints of concrete and other materials, which have remained stubbornly high. Thinking big – beyond the immediate – is necessary to make this kind of change. 

At Trilateral Research, we welcome the New European Bauhaus as an opportunity for technology to service the public good. We are at the forefront of addressing air pollution, combining our advancements in data processing and artificial intelligence to address air pollution within our STRIAD:AIR solution. This tool empowers local governments to make effective, data-backed decisions that tangibly enhance community health.  

The New Bauhaus is an avenue to build sustainably and continue our work from projects such as EERAdata, which created a decision-support tool for local authorities to pick the most efficient choices for building construction and renovations. Trilateral’s policy recommendations for legislators to improve energy efficiency in buildings and construction feeds directly into the movement’s themes. Our recommendations to track the quality of the indoor environment in buildings and integrate socio-economic assessments into renovation strategies are reflected in the goals of the New European Bauhaus to blend sustainability with inclusive dialogue between communities.  

The green revolution doesn’t need to be austere or staid. It shouldn’t mean sacrifice and hair shirts for the sake of a cleaner world. Instead, it can combine form and function to create an environment which isn’t just liveable but joyful. And that means a future where climate action isn’t a critical necessity but an integral part of all our lives. 

Trilateral’s expertise in energy, climate and air quality is supporting work to promote the net zero transition and improve health. Follow us on LinkedIn, or reach out here. 

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