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The Big Picture: What (and Who) to Watch in 2021

Susan Valenti from Healthy Indoors Magazine shares her thoughts on the future of the energy efficiency industry in 2021.

By: Susan Valenti

Photo of a bustling city street filled with people wearing masks.

I don’t particularly like living in a pandemic. I don’t like people dying for any reason. I don’t mind wearing a mask or two if I feel safer and the older gentleman behind me at the grocery store is safer. After studying the indoors for more than 30 years, this last year hasn’t made me thrilled to spend so much time in it. It has made me realize I need/want a better house.

But for all the editorials where Healthy Indoors Publisher Bob Krell said 2020 sucked, I did find many more times in the last year where the indoor environmental needle moved forward. I watched ordinary people realize that IAQ was important from the TV, and I watched many industry professionals I know on that TV. I’ve outgrown December Year-in-Review articles and I don’t like to make predictions, so I’m taking a different route this month with a little of what I’ve liked, what I’m looking forward to, and what I’ve noticed in the last year that could have an impact. Here are the topics and questions we need to look in 2021.

WELL Celebrities

A “Spike Lee Joint” for buildings that provide health and safety? That’s right. Spike Lee recently directed the public awareness campaign video for the International WELL Building Institute’s Health-Safety Rating Seal. It stars Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Michael B. Jordan, Robert DeNiro, Venus Williams, Wolfgang Puck, Deepak Chopra, and former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona.

As a consumer who enjoys a celebrity plug for my industry, I’m going to say the video is a game changer. It’s one thing to get Erin Brockovich or Ed McMahon to keynote your mold conference. It’s completely different to get this level of talent to pitch your certification program. As a jaded industry professional, however, I was left wondering if having J Lo or Gaga telling me I should look for and then open building doors with a Health and Safety seal that doesn’t explicitly tell me what’s in store for me once I’m inside really works. I mean, why should I open the door? Isn’t every building in the U.S. a “safe” building to be in? If I walk in, do I get healthier or does that mean the building is healthy. What is a healthy building? And why does a healthy building matter during a pandemic and I’m home anyway?

Words Matter

Well or WELL. What’s the difference? Health, healthy. Safe, safer, safety. Sustainable. Resilient. Better buildings. Green buildings. Healthy buildings. Calm buildings. Health-Safety Seal. Healthy indoors. Safe havens. Now apply all that same language to homes or public housing. Wow, does being “green” even matter anymore?

Mainstream media was on a warpath with the former Trump administration that words and truth matter. So how important are these words to a professional or even a consumer? Are they full of marketing or sales potential, or is there real science behind these words that we can start funneling to a public who now understands what it means to be cooped up inside for extended periods of time? We need to decide, either way.

Advertisements Matter

I love AXIOS newsletters-morning, evening, and now the daily sneak peeks. I’ve subscribed since before the Trump administration. So, imagine my surprise when SIEMENS, a global energy and building technology company, sponsored my morning political newsletter one day and said they could provide “safer indoor environments.” I’d say that indoor environments was suddenly a safe word to use in mainstream media. Looking forward to many more companies coming out to professionals and consumers to tout their products and services that could help.

Does Social Media Matter?

The pandemic really started for me on March 13, 2020. That’s when my children had their last day of school for the spring semester. March was also the time when social media kicked into high gear for indoor environments.

The word “indoors” was trending on all social media platforms, and our scientific community was ready to fill the void of information to a panicked public. TV and information outlets picked up folks like Harvard’s Joseph Allen, Portland State’s Richard Corsi, and Lindsay Marr from Virginia Tech to explain what was happening from an indoor science and engineering perspective. Researchers on Twitter even fast-tracked and released papers and studies to make sure the information was getting out to the public and peers on a timely basis.

I could spend hours listing everyone who contributed, or I can just say this: Social media mattered for our industry and professions for the last year. People paid attention. In 2021, as vaccines take over some of the headlines, we need to make sure more voices are added both on platforms and in the real world.

People to Watch

Last September, Elemental, a health and wellness publication of Medium.com, produced a story on the “50 Experts to Trust in a Pandemic.” It based its selections on health and science experts, but there was no aerosol/airborne scientists on it. As you can imagine, it created a little stir on Twitter. A month later, college professor David Eldredge made his own list of aerosol and airborne experts from Twitter.

“They have made the greatest of all contribution to the real transmission mode of this virus,” he said on his Medium page. So, for the people to watch this year, I’m listing Eldredge’s own Medium article on the air experts to follow on and off Twitter. I expect they will continue to provide quality information to consumers and professionals alike.

Not on Twitter: Julian W. Tang, Lidia Morawska, Jonathan Van-Tam, and Yuguo Li.

The strongest voices from Twitter: @kprather88, @ShellyMBoulder, @jljcolorado, @RWalensky, @DougChem, @VVuorinenAalto, @CathNoakes, @zeynep, @Wymelenberg, @Don_Milton, @HuffmanLabDU, @Prof_Lowe, @linseymarr, @bencowling88, @CorsIAQ, @ProfCharlesHaas, @j_g_allen, @ChemDelphine, @mtosterholm, @LauringLab, @Smogdr, @Poppendieck, @marinavance, @lisacng, @vfmcneill, @JayneMorrow406, and @polsiewski.

You can also follow Eldrege himself on Twitter @citlanx.

Mainstream Media

I was at a virtual event recently where someone asked the speaker “how they could engage CNN” to cover their indoor air topic. The speaker replied, “Do you really want to watch to Jake Tapper explain HVAC?” Agreed. I think Tapper would do a poor job. A better question is whether the medical and scientific communities have done a good job with media outlets over the last year introducing the subjects consumers need to know? And are they using the same language as the practitioners in the field who are meeting with those consumers to meet their needs? There’s a phrase in real estate sales called “meeting of the minds.” We need that in our own industry for buyers and sellers of services.

Industry Events

I’ll make one prediction. All industry events in 2021 will be virtual or hybrid. And if they are hybrid (meaning you can attend online or in-person), the state they will be held in will be either farther along in the vaccination process or be really behind the eight ball. One thing that industry researchers and professionals should be on board with this year is masking up and keeping people safe if you attend in-person. We know more airborne transmissions so we should do more. I’d hate to see an indoor air professional telling people to go to an in-person event when it’s just not safe.

With almost a year of virtual events and webinars until our belt, we also expect to see more new and innovative ideas in the “session rooms” and “exhibit halls” to hold attendee attention.

“Conferences can sometimes be just a way of getting education credits,” said publisher Bob Krell. “That’s fine for a few hours, but groups need to use their imaginations to keep people in their seats for days at a time. I think attendees get a daily dose of information from all kinds of resources already.”

Open the Schools

Next month’s cover story will cover the effects of COVID-19 and climate change on schools, so I don’t want to give too much away from that story. I do want to throw out into the universe the need to get teachers and staff vaccinated and get kids back in a school building. Bonus points if you can personally get my kids back in school!

I still remember Joe Allen’s Tweet that he had “failed” because all of his work to educate schools on reopening with good science was for naught when his own children’s schools did not reopen for the start of the new school year. While federal funding will go a long way in helping this reopening cause, there’s still engineering and safety controls that must be implemented that will ease adult minds. There’s also word on the street that older or problem school facilities could be helped with inclusion in new Infrastructure legislation to be proposed by President Joseph Biden this year.

Homes Vs. Housing

Several things to watch here: 1. Sam Rashkin and his new book and course, Housing 2.0. He’s such a thought leader and disruptor. Now collaborating with Green Builder Media, Rashkin is poised to make some real changes to the house building market. 2. With Biden in office, and Democrats in control, will that shake up justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in the housing market. And 3. Last year, I asked the question what’s the difference between a home and housing. Most people responded to me that housing equaled public housing. OK, how do we make housing healthy, better, greener, safer, sustainable, high performing, and resilient? And can we do that at an affordable price point? And don’t forget, it also should be energy efficient.

Electrify Everything, Etc.

It’s a fairly small group sample, but Nate Adams’ “Electrify Everything” on Facebook has been fascinated in how homeowners and contractors work together. Looking to electrify your home, but every HVAC contractor you talk to treats you like a silly child? Hey, that’s me! The silly child in that scenario. No question is too dumb here and there’s plenty of pros to help give advice. Also, on tap this year for Adams is an HVAC contractor network for Bad Ass HVAC. Check it out at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1854210748209867

Building Science

Building science was made better during the pandemic with the addition of two things that I really enjoy. On Instagram, the BuildingScienceFightClub with Christine Williamson is a gem. I know she’s Dr. Joe Lstiburek’s daughter and all, but she really makes building issues easy to understand and made pretty for the social media age. Is it all the pink arrows? Nah, it’s the detailed explanations over each photo that makes you think she just really cares that you know this… stuff. Check it out at https://www.instagram.com/buildingsciencefightclub/.

Next is BS* and Beer Show. I don’t drink beer and there’s no Pete Consigli food anywhere, but there’s a whole lot of “summer camp” elements with the same no “b- s-.” Supported by Fine Homebuilding and Green Building Advisors, it’s a night-time happy hour Zoom show that invites people to not only watch the show and participate, but to also start your own local watch groups and a book club. The magazines also post blogs after each show to get even more of the content from the guests. Check it out at https://www.thebsandbeershow.com/.

On the Frontlines

I’m married to an engineer and one of my kids just applied to 16 undergraduate engineering programs. But it took an video show called “Environmental Conversations” to make me realize that many of the indoor air professionals talking about and solving COVID-19 issues over the last year are, in fact, engineers. And those engineers are on the frontlines of prevention– every day– trying to make sure that you don’t have to visit your medical doctor or go to a hospital. Bob Krell and I are directing and producing this new video show for engineering and scientists and professionals. Hosting the conversations are Dr. Lilia Abron, president of the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and Scientists, and Dr. Joel Ducoste, president of the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors. Check it out at www.environmentalconversations.com.

Finally, 2021 is both exciting for everything we all expect to implement and tough for everything we still have to get through. Let’s continue to commit to educating the public and doing good work, while also providing common sense guidance about indoor environments.

Susan Valenti

Susan Valenti wrote this article as the January 2021 Cover Story in Healthy Indoors Magazine.

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