Choosing Building Environment Evaluators

The following is a summary of Chapter 1 of The Cutter Corporation’s Indoor Air Quality in Schools, a guide to the practical control of indoor air problems. 1996.

  • There is no standard licensing or certification program for Indoor Environment evaluators.
  • Air Quality problems often stem from complex causes among interacting conditions, and require broad knowledge and training.
  • Environmental Consultants who specialize in industrial settings may not be suited for dealing with school indoor environments.
  • Often consultants have training in one field, say ventilation, or microbiology, and are best used as part of a coordinated team. A team approach tends to work best, with a chief consultant who has well rounded experience and training and who knows the strengths of his team members.
  • Dangers arise when consultants in one or two subject areas broaden their opinions beyond the area they are trained in. Given the lack of standards for training this is very common. “Many times, administrators hire such consultants only to find the IAQ problem getting worse while they waste time and money on an inadequate investigation.” (p.14)
  • Testing can be very unreliable and misleading. A skilled investigator relies on much more than interpretation of test results to evaluate a building.
  • Consultants use complaints as the groundwork for discovering the nature of the problems – keeping an open mind and seeing complainants as part of the team, while recognizing potential shortcomings of the complaint process. It helps them know what questions to ask and what to look for first.
  • The Cutter Corporation has a list of available consultants, but how extensive is it for eastern Canada? It may be worth checking into: The IAQ Product & Service Guide.
  • Selecting from among available consultants is a large challenge:
    • Is this the consultant’s main line of business, or just a sideline? – Looking in the Yellow Pages is not the best approach.
    • Government agencies may or may not have good recommendations.
    • Word of mouth often works well to locate at least a shortlist of candidates.
    • Including among the decision makers some who are well informed on matters of IAQ helps in making a good choice.

Qualities to consider when selecting consultants:

Expertise: Refer to the comments above. In addition, for an initial investigation the Cutter Corporation suggests the primary consultant include on the team at least an industrial hygienist and an HVAC (ventilation) engineer. Microbiology, analytical chemistry, ventilation design, and others (i.e: structural engineering) may be used as well. The primary consultant needn’t have all this expertise in house, but can subcontract. The important thing is that they have worked together as a team before.

Communication Skills: An IAQ investigation goes beyond sampling and investigation. Consultants have to be skilled at understanding client’s problems and concerns, explaining results meaningfully, and making realistic recommendations. Before hiring a consultant, clients should review previous reports to determine if this is the presentation manner and type of information needed.

Investigative Approach: Different problems call for different approaches. An initial investigation could call for a review & inspection of building systems, CO2 and CO and particulate tests. Other tests depend on preliminary investigation (including building occupant interviews).

Cost: The consumer should beware. “Clients have to pay for experience, and it is experience that often leads to finding – and correcting – the problem sooner.” The people who perform the investigation have to have the necessary skills to interpret subtle clues. “It is also fair to say that a higher price doesn’t guarantee a good job.”

Reputation: Check a firm’s or consultant’s standing with professional organizations. Have they published? Most important: Check references and read past reports.

The Cutter Corporation ends the chapter with: IAQ Education is Vital. It encourages administrators to become educated and also to seek competent professional assistance and weigh all criteria rather than relying on such things as “gut feelings”.

Contact info for The Cutter Corporation: 617-648-8700