Making Healthy Buildings Real: The Coming Revolution in Diagnostic Imaging Technology

The built environment stands at a 1967-like inflection point, when the invention of computed tomography (CT) revolutionized medicine

By Erik Malmstrom | October 4, 2021

How Diagnostic Imaging Technology Transformed Medicine

Over the past year, IAQ experts have described the COVID-19 pandemic as a watershed event, drawing historical analogies from Chadwick’s 1842 Sanitary Report that led the British government to organize clean water supplies and centralized sewage systems1 to the 1918 influenza pandemic that gave rise to modernist architecture2, innovations in steam radiators3, among other major long-lasting reforms to building design and operations.

However, a different historical analogy may be more appropriate, at least from a technology and innovation standpoint – Sir Godfrey Hounsfield’s 1967 invention of the first computed tomography (CT) scanner. CT is considered one of the most important medical innovations in human history, advancing us from a largely superficial to an incredibly sophisticated understanding of the inner workings of the human body.4 CT images display soft tissue contrasted with anatomic detail, exponentially enhancing diagnostic accuracy for detecting, measuring, and visualizing abnormalities in the body’s metabolic processes and physiological activities, including cancer, heart disease, and neurological disorders. 

The Evolution of Medical Imaging Technology5

Sir Godfrey Hounsfield’s 1967 invention of the first computed tomography (CT) scanner is considered one of the most important medical innovations in human history, kicking off a series of breakthroughs in medical imaging technology and advancing us from a largely superficial to an incredibly sophisticated understanding of the inner workings of the human body.

With over 100 million studies performed annually, CT has become the “modern doctor’s truth machine.”6 Moreover, CT kicked off a revolution in medical imaging, with major improvements in the efficacy, precision, and speed of CT itself in subsequent decades as well as the invention of complementary diagnostic technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET). Today, medical imaging is fundamental to “the entire health-care continuum, from wellness and screening, to early diagnosis, treatment selection, and follow-up,”7 representing a true step change advancement for the field.

How Diagnostic Imaging Technology Will Transform the Built Environment

In 2021, the built environment stands at a 1967-like inflection point, when technological breakthroughs will make “healthy buildings” real, not just a marketing gimmick. 

Indeed, the term “healthy buildings” implies that the building is human body-like in nature – a complex interconnected system with a core and shell (skeleton and skin), vital mechanical and HVAC systems (tissues and organs) that regulate core processes and activities such as airflow, ventilation and filtration (blood flow, biochemical function, absorption), all of which have direct health implications for the key system components – people (cells). 

Like medicine prior to CT, building doctors – architects, engineers, industrial hygienists, facilities professionals – have traditionally operated and continue to operate with an extremely limited and flawed toolbox for preventing airborne disease transmission, the invisible, deadly, and costly public health scourge that defines our times. This shortcoming has led to a shallow understanding of airflow, ventilation, and filtration, our essential controls for combating respiratory infection, and consequently a damaging breakdown in diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring for airborne disease transmission risk within buildings, leading to millions of preventable infections, billions of dollars of wasted spending and productivity, and billions of tons of avoidable carbon emissions. 

Air Balance Test Output8

Air balance test outputs and other existing diagnostics reports for ventilation and filtrations performance are not geared towards health and safety risk mitigation, have limited utility for addressing airborne disease transmission, and are often not visually digestible and intuitive.

Simply put, SafeTraces’ diagnostic imaging technology is as consequential for building health as CT, MRI, and PET have been for human health. Rooted in biosecurity and supported by the National Institutes of Health and world-class experts at MIT, Stanford, and other leading research institutions, our company has developed the first solution for testing and verifying indoor air/airflow safety and HVAC system performance for airborne disease exposure risk in real-world buildings.

SafeTraces Airflow, Ventilation, and Filtration Test Output

Heatmaps visualize airborne pathogen mobility, exposure levels, and ventilation and filtration system performance resulting from the safe, controlled release of patented DNA-tagged aerosol tracers in buildings.

Conceptually, SafeTraces’ technology is analogous to PET for buildings, leveraging patented and safe DNA-tagged aerosol tracers to detect, measure, and visualize abnormalities in airflow, ventilation, and filtration in real world indoor spaces (not software-based models), the foundations of healthy buildings and healthy people. The controlled release of our tracers simulate respiratory emissions and exposures to SARS-CoV-2, influenza, and other airborne diseases to: 

  • Identity potential infection hotspots and transmission pathways 
  • Measure ventilation and filtration system performance in removing infectious aerosols from the air 
  • Visualize analytics in heatmaps and other clear graphics that enable building owners, operators, service providers, and occupants to see the “invisible” and make better, smarter decisions

Commercial Application and Return on Investment (ROI)

Practically, our technology is employed in facility portfolios as a recurring preventative building health and measurement & verification (M&V) service to enhance:

  • Indoor environmental quality programs (including major building verifications and certifications)
  • Service and maintenance programs
  • Compliance and audit programs
  • Capital budgeting and planning
  • Public communications on workplace safety

What is the value of SafeTraces technology to our clients and partners, including Fortune 100 companies, leading commercial real estate owners and operators like the Irvine Company, Brookfield Properties, and JLL, and large public entities like the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, and the State of California?

  • Health and Safety ROI: we quantifiably measure the exposure risk reduction for airborne pathogens provided by real world ventilation and filtration systems and infection control strategies. Does increasing outside air rates or MERV-level filters in central air handling units actually do anything? Which product model, size, position, and setting level is optimal for local filtration devices? Absent our technology, there is virtually no way to know. However, our technology holds the answers in order to proactively measure and manage risk, keep occupants safe, and communicate safety conditions and mitigation actions to employees, tenants, regulators, and other key stakeholders. 
  • Financial ROI: we optimize capital investments on HVAC and local ventilation and filtration upgrades, minimize cost penalties associated with increasing ventilation rates, filtration levels, and building flushes that can be upwards of 30%, and develop portfolio-level strategies for how and where to most effectively and cost-effectively spend money. In real terms, what does this mean for our clients? In many cases, saving millions if not tens of millions of dollars that would have otherwise been misdirected and wasted, and increasing the probability of getting tenants and employees back into otherwise unoccupied buildings, keeping them there safely, and avoiding depressed leasing levels and vacancies threatening the commercial real estate industry.
  • Sustainability ROI: we minimize carbon penalties associated with increasing ventilation rates, filtration levels, and building flushes, identify optimal points of health & safety and sustainability-focused IAQ, and develop resiliency strategies in order to react to extraordinary events like pandemics in a carbon-sensitive manner, especially important for clients committed to green building, decarbonization, and net zero programs. The real estate sector is responsible for 30% of global annual greenhouse gas (GHG) and 40% of global energy consumption, with the HVAC system accounting for a significant share of these numbers9. Our diagnostic assessment helps right-size ventilation rates and filtration levels for infection control while avoiding unnecessary energy usage and carbon emissions  

In sum, SafeTraces’ technology is central to the healthy building continuum in the same way that medical imaging technology is central to the healthcare continuum, dramatically sharpening diagnostic accuracy in order to protect occupants from airborne disease, better manage financial resources, and reduce carbon impacts of health & safety strategies. Moreover, the impact of our technology will be amplified by pooling data from millions of assessments within and across buildings over time under different conditions and correlating with other IAQ diagnostic data in order to strengthen the diagnosis, treatment, and monitoring process through data science. 

Shifting the IAQ Paradigm: The Alliance for Sustainable and Practical IAQ in Real Estate (ASPIRE)

Moreover, SafeTraces is proud and excited to be a founding member of ASPIRE for three main reasons. 

First, we are deeply committed to ASPIRE’s mission to develop a new paradigm for IAQ that balances health & safety and sustainability via foundational knowledge, codes & standards, and solutions & analytics. 

Second, we have tremendous respect for ASPIRE’s market-leading proptech founding members and see huge synergies and potential between our technology and their complementary innovative technologies spanning IAQ sensors and analytics (Awair), fault detection and diagnostics (Clockwork Analytics), sustainable air purification (enVerid), and high performance building services (System2). 

Third, ASPIRE will be a powerful vehicle to advance the agenda for risk-based ventilation rates for infection control proposed by Lidia Morawska, Joseph Allen, William Bahnfleth et al,10 as well as reformed policies, regulations, and building codes and increased government funding for IAQ research and development.   

2021 has the potential to usher in an exciting new era for performance-based and data-driven IAQ, where public need, political will, and technological advancements meet the moment in the interest of public health and safety, financial responsibility, and sustainability. With one of the most groundbreaking technologies in IAQ, SafeTraces is eager to work with our sister ASPIRE members and other like-minded allies to make this potential a reality.

  1. https://www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.abg2025
  2. https://slate.com/business/2020/04/coronavirus-architecture-1918-flu-cholera-modernism.html
  3. https://www.npr.org/2020/12/10/945136599/how-spanish-flu-pandemic-changed-home-heat-radiators
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6186003/pdf/rmmj-9-4-e0034.pdf
  5. https://sdbif.org/index/whats-the-difference-between-all-the-different-head-scans/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6186003/pdf/rmmj-9-4-e0034.pdf
  7.  Ibid
  8. https://kitchenairinc.com/test-and-balancing/
  9. https://www.schroders.com/en/insights/economics/does-an-emissions-scandal-await-the-real-estate-sector/
  10. https://www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.abg2025
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