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Let's clear the air
Harry Hoodless
20th June 2019

Designing out air pollution

In the UK 36,000 premature deaths every year can be linked to air pollution. Shockingly, this is only a small proportion of the estimated 8.8 million deaths across the world, a result of breathing particulate matter and toxic gases such as ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2).

The link between air quality and serious health implications such as cancer, asthma, heart disease and dementia is clear, with people at risk across every stage of life. The issue is particularly critical for children, whose organs and immune systems are still developing and whose smaller bodies and airways make them especially vulnerable to dirty air. In the UK, 2,091 schools, nurseries, further education centres and after-school clubs are situated within 150m of a road with illegal levels or nitrogen dioxide (above 40µg/m3).

With air pollution having a much greater effect on a child’s overall health, what are we doing as architects and designers to create a cleaner environment now for future generations? How can we clear the air?

“Over 80% of urban residents are exposed to air pollution levels that exceed WHO limits.”
World Health Organisation, 2019
  1. Streets for All
    With road transport being the main source of emissions responsible for respiratory related deaths, there is a strong case for deploying measures that can encourage greener and more sustainable ways of travelling. Our ‘Streets for All’ initiative does just this. Re-planning our streets for people, not traffic, and thereby encouraging people to travel by foot, bike, bus, tram or train is crucial to limiting pollution. We need to reconsider our design priorities through transformational public realm schemes, working with local authorities and the public to truly understand their needs.

  2. Car exclusion zones
    The school run accounts for over 25% of morning traffic, not only contributing to pollution but also causing concerns over road safety with badly parked cars and worsening congestion. Street closure schemes, such as ‘School Streets’, where cars are prevented from going up to school gates at drop-off and pick-up times, have been successfully trialled in towns and cities in the UK. By reclaiming their streets, children, their families, carers and teachers can get active and safely walk, scoot and cycle to school, not just reducing pollution but tackling the growing issue of childhood obesity and leading to improved mental health and happiness.

    Additionally, rather than plan schools around vast car parks, we are now designing site layouts to accommodate electric bus routes to encourage students to use public transport, and including charge points for electric vehicles and secure bike/scooter storage.

  3. Green ‘pollution barriers’ for schools
    One of the many benefits of trees is their ability to intercept harmful pollution from the air, particularly PM2.5 a dangerous fine particulate matter that can penetrate deep into the lungs and even the circulatory system. By introducing green barriers - trees, hedgerows, walls covered in evergreen climbing plants – it’s been proven that pollution levels can be halved between the street and school grounds. We should encourage green spaces to be integrated into school grounds, everything from green tunnels, wildlife and flower gardens, to edible playgrounds where children can grow their own produce, helps to mitigate toxic emissions.

  4. Greening the classroom
    Plants are also extremely effective in helping to purify the internal air quality, reducing VOCs (volatile organic compounds), CO2 and particulate matter. A ‘Mother-in-law’s Tongue’ (Sansevieria trifasciata) plant for example removes benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene and ozone from the air replacing them with oxygen. Research has proven that introducing plants can help to reduce sickness and absenteeism in schools with pupils reporting they are better able to concentrate, more creative and feel calmer. Even as long as 30 years ago, the space agency NASA reported that by using plants, human productivity can increase by up to 20%.

  5. Adopting Passive House principles for all schools
    Designing with meticulous attention to detail and adopting rigorous design and construction principles means we can design buildings that provide a high level of comfort for occupants whilst at the same time using very little energy for heating and cooling. By keeping building envelopes well insulated and air tight, we can achieve thermal comfort by solely post-heating or post-cooling the fresh air flow required for good indoor air quality without the need for additional recirculation of air.

    Whilst designing schools across China, where the issue of air quality is a now priority, we have worked with specialists to develop an understanding of advanced filtration systems needed to combat the short-term issue.


    Thursday 20th June is the UK's National Clean Air Day. Started by the charity Global Action Plan, it's aim is to teach people more about air pollution, and what can be done to reduce it, as well as ways to look after your health, particularly if you suffer from a breathing condition.

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