Published: July 21, 2023 By

Indoor air quality is a global concern, given the significant time people spend indoors and its impact on respiratory health. 

Professor John Z. Zhai, an expert in building systems engineering and indoor air quality (IAQ) at CU Boulder, has been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to address this issue in affordable housing in hot and humid climates. Zhai’s work will focus on not only the technical aspects but also the influence of cultural practices on indoor air quality.

“We will include human and social perspectives into the equation,” said Zhai, a professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering. “As far as I know, no one has looked at indoor air quality in that way in the region.”

From December to May 2024, Zhai will conduct research in three hot and humid countries: Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, with a goal to monitor house air quality conditions and analyze potential environmental and societal impact factors. The study will further develop mathematical models that predict indoor contaminant distributions and evaluate various mitigation strategies. His research will particularly focus on affordable housing, a sector which often encounters more IAQ challenges due to lower budgets, poor design and inexpensive building materials. 

Zhai will spend the initial three months in Indonesia, leveraging his existing collaborations with Indonesian partners. The subsequent three months will be split between Thailand and Malaysia.

A holistic approach
Zhai’s decision to focus on hot and humid climates is driven by the presence of molds, which have been linked to lung cancer, and their tendency to grow inside walls in such environments. Additionally, these moist environments serve as breeding grounds for harmful bacteria and viruses, including Covid-19. 

His research will delve into the social dynamics of each location, exploring how living habits and social practices can directly affect indoor air quality. For example, in Indonesia, large groups of 20 people or more often gather in one house for meals, while in predominantly Muslim Malaysia, prayer rooms serve as gathering places. In Thailand, the religious practice of incense burning also can affect indoor air quality. 

Zhai plans to monitor two to four houses in each country, attaching sensors and wireless technologies to walls and windows to track temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, particulate matter, ozone and human motion. The concentration levels of different pollutants will be used to diagnose IAQ issues and trigger alerts and the monitoring systems will be replicable for new and existing buildings.

He plans to leave the measurement equipment in the houses for longterm “live” monitoring, both with on-site and remote accessibility for people from various countries, schools and disciplines. 

Residents will have multiple ways to interact with the platform, including checking the daily and hourly indoor and outdoor air quality status, receiving alerts and getting advice on critical environment conditions.    

The findings will be used to propose cost-effective IAQ solutions, improve building designs and materials, and enforce local building standards and codes.                

In addition, Zhai plans to contribute to student and faculty exchange between the three universities—Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta (Indonesia), Thammasat University in Bangkok (Thailand) and University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) —and CU Boulder, especially through CU Boulder’s National Research Center in Asian Studies.

“This project will not only explore new challenges, opportunities and solutions, but also bring together researchers and students from four countries to create a new and dynamic collaboration model for a sustainable world development,” Zhai said.