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Where it all started: ASHRAE and IEO.

"Ventilation comes next to godliness, and must necessarily precede the manifestation of the latter, so I hold that in the next decade one of the great human benefactors will be the body of men who make it possible for their fellow-men to be more cleanly in their surroundings. Our work, however, will not stop with any class, it will benefit all classes, and the amount of benefit received will be commensurate with the amount of labor expended upon it." (1)

Thus spoke President E.P. Bates (gender exclusive language aside) at the opening of the American Society of Heating and Ventilating Engineers 1895 annual meeting in New York City. He was addressing the need for ventilation in tenements, prevalent in U.S. cities at the time and for many years later, making the point that everyone deserves clean air and healthy living conditions.

His point reminds us of the founding principles of ASHRAE. As stated in its bylaws, ASHRAE exists "... for the exclusive purpose of advancing the arts and sciences of heating, refrigerating, air conditioning, and ventilating, the allied arts and sciences, and related human factors for the benefit of the general public." Mr. Bates also reminds us of the fundamental motivation of engineering--to use science and technology to improve the quality of life.

Tenements became a common form of housing for the lower class in the 19th century in the U.S. and Europe as industrialization led to increases in the population of urban areas, and existing homes and other buildings were subdivided into small apartments. These buildings had a host of health and safety issues related to drinking water, fire safety, sanitation, light and, of course, fresh air, or as fresh as the outdoor air was in those neighborhoods. (If you are interested in learning more about this interesting time in U.S. history, visit the Tenement Museum, 103 Orchard Street, New York.)

Based on these health and safety concerns, New York City enacted the Tenement House Act of 1867, which included a number of improvements such as the prohibition of basement apartments (which were plagued by flooding) and requirements for fire escapes, one water closet per 20 residents and windows in each room. Despite these requirements and those added by later legislation, tenements were not the most pleasant, let alone healthy, places to live.

The Tenement House Act of 1879 required that every habitable room have a window opening, which was often achieved using vertical air shafts. This law was, in part, a response to the window requirement in the 1867 law, which was sometimes circumvented by installing windows between interior rooms rather than windows to the outdoors. (2) However the air shafts installed per the 1879 law became dumping grounds for trash and worse, as well as contributing to fire spread between apartments. (3) A new law in 1901 replaced the air shaft requirement with a requirement for a large courtyard. Tenements built before 1901 are sometimes referred to as "Old Law Tenements."

A description of the conditions in a particular tenement at 97 Orchard Street highlights some of the issues quite dramatically:
   Within #97, its 20 three-room apartments,
   typical of their kinds, were arranged
   four to a floor, two in front and
   two in the rear. They were reached by
   an unlighted, ventilated wooden staircase
   that ran through the center of the
   building.... The entire flat, which often
   contained households of seven or more
   people, totaled about 325 square feet.

      Only one room per apartment--the
   "front room"--received direct light and
   ventilation, limited by the tenements
   that would soon hem it in. The standard
   bedroom, 8 ft 6 in. square, would have
   been completely shut off from both
   fresh air and natural light, but at #97,
   the bedroom had casement windows,
   opening onto the hall, that appear to
   be part of the original construction.

      There was, of course, no toilet,
   no shower, no bath; nor is there any
   indication that water was available
   within the apartments ... The building's
   privies, located in the rear
   yard, might or might not have been
   connected to the sewer pipes running
   beneath Orchard Street.

      Garbage was disposed of in boxes
   set in front of the house. A particularly
   lurid description of what some
   garbage boxes contained was printed
   in the New York Tribune in 1863:

   "composed of potato-peelings,
   oyster-shells, night-soil, rancid butter,
   dead dogs and cats, and ordinary
   black street mud, (the garbage boxes
   formed) one festering, rotting, loath
   some, hellish mass of air poisoning, death-breeding filth,
   reeking in the fierce sunshine, which gloats yellowly over
   it like the glare of a devil whom Satan has kicked from his
   councils in virtuous disgust." (4)

Enter the engineers, with their knowledge of the importance of building ventilation and how to get it done. President Bates' remarks are quite impressive in his focus on ventilating all buildings, not just those where his friends and colleagues worked and lived. Today, we use the term "environmental justice" to describe the need to protect all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income from environmental and health hazards. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has major programs in this area (, in which they consider issues including permitting requirements, waste disposal, air quality standards, water quality and cleanup of contaminated land.

President Bates was way ahead of the curve when he stated the following:

"You may hold that in the majority of cases the occupant of a tenement does not desire any ventilation, but this doesn t affect the merits of the case.... Every family has the right to have an abundance of good air, even if they are not aware of their rights. I hereby suggest that this be one of the first problems we handle, and, if possible, we secure such legislation as will compel every person or corporation * who shall in the future erect a tenement house to connect each room with an individual ventilating flue, to be not less than 8 in. internal diameter, round of form, and preferably of glazed tile, built in the wall of the building." This historical discussion serves to remind us that buildings exist for occupants to work, learn, heal or simply enjoy life. In our push to reduce energy consumption and negative environmental impacts associated with buildings, it is critical that we remember why buildings exist.

ASHRAE's upcoming IAQ 2013 conference, scheduled for October in Vancouver, is focused specifically on environmental health in low-energy buildings. Among the submitted papers is one written by my colleagues, in which the case studies of ASHRAE High Performing Buildings magazine were analyzed for their consideration of indoor environmental quality (IEQ). Despite general agreement that high performance includes good IEQ, only a small minority of these case studies address IAQ in any depth or, in some cases, at all.

Based on this review, and other discussions of sustainable or high performance buildings, ASHRAE and the building community are focusing mostly on energy efficiency. And of course we need to do that, and reducing energy may require us to change our indoor environmental expectations--wider bands of acceptable thermal comfort, for example. But indoor environmental quality needs to be part of the discussion from day one in designing efficient buildings and developing energy efficiency programs, not an afterthought or otherwise an exercise in lip service. The most cost-effective building efficiency measures are those that provide for the health, comfort and productivity of building occupants. I suspect that the tenements referred to earlier didn't use a lot of energy per occupant, but they didn't do a very good job meeting the needs of the occupants either.

As we move forward to develop and apply technical solutions to the energy and environmental issues in the built environment, it is important to occasionally take a look back and remind ourselves of the wisdom of our predecessors. Speaking of wise predecessors, Albert Einstein had a very similar message to that of President Bates when he said the following:

"Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavors, ... in order that the creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind. Never forget this in the midst of your diagrams and equations."


Another unrelated, but very interesting, issue came up at this same 1895 meeting: "A question that raised considerable discussion was whether members of the society should demand pay for their services when they prepare plans for architects. Mr. Jellett of Philadelphia said he already adopted the plan of demanding pay, and found that the result was more than satisfactory for him. He advised every member to do so likewise." (1) All of my consulting engineer friends thank you Mr. Jellett!


(1.) The New York Times. January 23, 1895.

(2.) Veiller, L. "New York's New Building Code" Charities Review 9 (1899-1900), 388-391.

(3.) DeForest, R. and L. Veiller, eds. 1903. "The Tenement House Problem: Including the Report of the New York State Tenement House Commission, in two volumes." Volume I. New York: MacMillan.

(4.) Limmer, R., A.S. Dolkart. "The Tenement as History and Housing." www.thirteen. org/tenement/eagle.html.

* They didn't realize that corporations were people back then.

Andrew K. Persily, Ph.D., Fellow ASHRAE

Andrew K. Persily, Ph.D., is vice-chair of ASHRAE's Standing Standards Project Committee 189.1
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Author:Persily, Andrew K.
Publication:ASHRAE Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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