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New study reveals air quality doesn’t necessarily improve for people living at height

24th February – A new study has revealed that people living as high as nine floors above roads in cities may not necessarily see an improvement in air quality compared to those living much closer to the road.


The City Air Quality at Height report, produced by environmental consultants at tall building specialist WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, showed that whilst air quality did improve up to the fourth floor above a road (between 40-60% reduction in NO₂ concentrations), from the fourth to the ninth floor there was no significant improvement (around 10%).

Findings were collated from the recordings of a series of air quality monitors placed up to the ninth floor of 26 buildings in London and Cardiff. They contrast with current air dispersion models used in the industry, which predict a general improvement in air quality with height.

Tom Reade, senior air quality consultant at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, said: “Poor air quality in cities cannot simply be wished away at height. If you’re living high on the ninth floor your air quality may be no better than someone far closer to the street. As British cities become denser and therefore taller, we need to ensure that we account for proper planning and building design to minimise this risk.”

In particular, the report focuses on the issue of ‘street canyons’, an effect where tall buildings line both sides of a road, limiting the dispersion of air in some cases. In these areas the report found the canyon effect led to a significant degree of variability in NO₂ concentrations from road traffic emissions between even the ground and first floor.

Tom Reade said: “Good design must ensure that buildings themselves are part of the solution. This can range from using renewable energy systems to encouraging use of electric cars through charging points. Research has suggested that pollution levels may not be dissimilar all the way up to the 34th floor*. With the issue moving up the political agenda and local authorities demanding more information on the impact of new developments, we must have the evidence and measures in place to reduce the impact of emissions for tenants high up. We cannot just assume height is the answer.”

The report provides the following five recommendations for building design to improve the health of occupants:

1. Monitor and model air pollution dispersion from road traffic and other sources as part of the design process to identify the best place to locate building air intakes.

2. Locate air intakes away from main roads and higher than the fourth floor if possible.

3. Locate air intakes away from existing and new boiler flues. These emissions can be as significant as the impacts from road traffic.

4. Design buildings that themselves are part of the solution. Renewable energy systems preferably, but where necessary centralised energy facilities designed to appropriate planning guidance, and electric vehicle charging points are all best practice.

5. Avoid reliance on nitrogen oxide filters unless absolutely necessary for new buildings as these rely on regular maintenance and incur high costs for purchase, installation and management.

Notes to editors

For media enquiries please contact Tom Hawkins on 020 7314 4585 / tom.hawkins@wspgroup.com

* A separate study by the City of London of NO2 concentrations at the Barbican indicates that concentrations above 9th floor level (up to level 34) may not be dissimilar to those at lower levels, particularly at background locations. The implication is that concentrations at high rise levels should not simply be assumed to be substantially lower than ground floor background concentrations.

WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff is one of the world's leading engineering professional services consulting firms. Our 36,700 people, based in more than 500 offices, across 40 countries provide engineering and multidisciplinary services in a vast array of industry sectors, with a focus on technical excellence and client service.

In the UK, 7,100 people (including Mouchel Consulting) provide consultancy services to all aspects of the built and natural environment working across both the public and private sectors, with local and national governments, local authorities, developers, contractors and co-professionals. The combined business has been involved in many high profile UK projects including the Shard, Crossrail, Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, the Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham, the re-development of London Bridge Station, Manchester Metrolink, M1 Smart Motorway, and the London Olympic & Paralympic Route Network.




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