How to Find Out If the Condition of Your Building Envelope Is Negatively Impacting Your School’s Environment

By David Hart posted 09-15-2021 12:47 PM


To improve the environment within a school building – namely comfort, health, safety, energy efficiency, and overall performance – you have to start with ABC or Air Barrier Continuity. Without continuity within your “building envelope,” unintentional air filtration can bring moisture, pests, odors, and even airborne infection into your controlled environments. Did you know that buildings that leak as a result of age or poor envelope construction can cost you up to 40 percent more in heating costs and 15 percent more in cooling costs?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average school building is 42 years old. In all buildings, (but especially in older buildings), there can be a multitude of unseen gaps, cracks, and holes in the various parts of the building envelope. Leaks can occur all throughout the building, but the most common culprits can be found at roof/wall joints, doors, windows, roof level changes, along interior shafts, and even at electrical outlets. Air leakage can impact ventilation, air distribution, pressurization, energy usage and ultimately, how comfortable, safe, and healthy the building’s interior is for staff and students.

Conduct Audits for Building Health
If you’d like to find out how healthy your building envelope is, the first step is to conduct an air barrier audit to find out where leaks occur. Air leakage is a building science, and a trained assessor should conduct and document the audit. Commonly used tools include an air leakage detector, blower door testing, and thermal imaging to pinpoint exactly where air is entering the building. The air leakage detector, or smoke pencil, is a handheld device that emits smoke when squeezed. It works by visually showing how air is moving in the space. The blower door is a large fan that depressurizes the building, pulling air into the unit from exterior sources. And thermal imaging, which maps surface temperatures, may reveal the locations of conductive or convective heat loss/gain often related to excessive air leakage. Based on the results of testing with these tools, your professional auditor can provide air sealing solutions. Air barrier system solutions can mitigate any air infiltration issues to protect the learning environment. They can also help to improve HVAC efficiency. Experienced auditors should also provide you with energy savings calculations to justify how air sealing measures will improve energy efficiency and reduce costs. 

Indoor Air Quality
When we talk about the learning environment, maintaining ideal indoor air quality (IAQ) is paramount — perhaps even more so in this ongoing time of COVID. IAQ refers to the air quality in and around buildings, particularly as it relates to the comfort and health of staff and students.

Air barrier continuity goes hand in hand with IAQ. An air barrier audit will cast a spotlight on the sources of issues such as unexplained hot/or cold spots and abnormal areas of relative humidity, evidence of moisture and/or mold growth, the excessive accumulation of particulate, pest issues, damage to materials and furnishings, and struggling HVAC systems. All of the above are indicative of problems that can affect the comfort, productivity, and well-being of building occupants.

Beyond air barrier audits, you can go a step further and document the current IAQ of your building. This includes sample testing for indoor pollutants such as mold, odors, carbon monoxide/dioxide, particles, legionella, radon/asbestos/lead, and more. It’s also important to conduct a hygiene assessment of the HVAC system. Did you know that a buildup of only 3/16” on HVAC coils can decrease efficiency by 21 percent?

COVID Contamination
As part of recently published COVID guidance, the CDC recommends evaluating ventilation and HVAC systems. According to the CDC, “SARS-CoV-2 viral particles spread between people more readily indoors than outdoors.” Indoor, occupied spaces are particularly susceptible areas of transmission and further spread because the virus is spread person to person. This is because the coronavirus can residually contaminate a building in two ways: infected droplets settling on high touch surfaces, or by infected droplets entering, settling, and traveling in the HVAC System. To safeguard against virus spread indoors, engage with a provider of environmental diagnostics services, building and room decontamination, and HVAC system hygienic cleaning and restoration.

The best way to maintain an optimal school environment is to be proactive.  Between air barrier audits and solutions to seal any air leakage in the building envelope, IAQ testing, and duct and air handler deep cleaning/disinfection to the balancing and microbial remediation of HVAC systems, you have many tools in your arsenal to protect the learning environment.

David Hart is Certified Technical Roof Consultant at Tremco Roofing & Building Maintenance Division. (513) 489-1125 |