How’s the Air in Theaters? Classrooms? It’s Hard to Find Out
Photo-Illustration: by Curbed; Photo Getty Images
Architecture, said Le Corbusier, is “the game of masses united in light”. This statement, made at a time when photography and the art of building were mutually delimited, has made its way into our collective consciousness. We look at architecture and judge it by what we see. It’s harder to record how a building breathes, and not as sexy looking at the almost invisible network of fans, compressors, dampers, windows, filters, vents, ducts and switches that keep the air clean – not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, not too dry – roaming interior spaces.
As students scramble through school buildings and Broadway theaters come to life, the most obvious signs of a new hygienic vigilance will be masks and vaccination cards. But we also have an invisible vector of anxiety. Outside, the air dissipates pathogens; inside, he can circulate them. Fortunately, we have the technology to purify the air as it swirls around cafeterias, lobbies, and other crowded spaces. The problem is, the public can only guess at how well the machine is doing its job. Is it the monotony of a teacher making you drowsy or the carbon dioxide buildup of your classmates? Is a frozen room a sign of an efficient HVAC system or a sign that it is recycling already cooled air? Do we need to worry that the products of an intermittent coughing fit may linger until the final?
Opening doors to the public is an invitation to come in and pollute, and it’s not just a COVID concern. Yes a precise and timely reason be anxious to pull over in a large room shrouded in the humid, carbon-laden vapors of our neighbors’ exhalations. But the truth is, these undetectable inner clouds have always carried nasty cargo. Any group of people in the same space, whether the decor is steel and linoleum or red velvet and marble, will share the flu and cold viruses. Bacillus and mold spores emanate from the walls. Harmful chemicals used to create an illusion of cleanliness linger in the ducts. Our newfound concern for indoor air quality is not expected to abate as the pandemic recedes.
Making theaters, concert halls and schools safe places to breathe is not an insurmountable challenge, but it does mean overcoming a history of terrible habits, widespread neglect, insufficient standards and zero transparency. “Our customers are really paying attention now and they are discovering things that no one has ever thought of,” says Charles Copeland, a longtime engineer who specializes in modernizing squeaky theaters and concert halls. All over town, facility managers are scrambling to develop old, rattling air conditioners. The Ministry of Education conducts class-by-class surveys air flow, not always with happy results. Suddenly, ventilation engineers are in high demand as building owners desperately seek to make up for decades of neglect.
We need these spasms of panicked attention because the systems technicians are called upon to fix were never meant to be noticed. We usually don’t fill our lungs in a school cafeteria and we cringe at the freshness of the scent or bask in the pleasant breeze blowing through an office hallway. The only time most of us think about indoor air is when it’s putrid or stale. This oblivion can extend to property owners and managers, who often spend millions on an HVAC system and then ignore it for years. The shocks are left closed. The windows are rusting. Filters fail and are not replaced. The cost of an overhaul goes up and is postponed indefinitely. Off-Off Broadway businesses operate on the most meager budgets, which typically don’t include fancy air conditioning. A theater-goer I know calls the balcony of one of her favorite downtown spots a “wet horror show.”
Schools and performance venues have overlapping issues, but very different circumstances. Every classroom is a microclimate, which means that a single box fan with HEPA filter can do wonders for the local atmosphere, but an entire school building is a study of complexity and unpredictability. Opening a window can fill a classroom with invigorating winter air, but it can also jam calibrated drafts or trigger a thermostat, causing an adjoining room to overheat. Let nature in too makes it impossible to take standard measurements like the number of air changes per hour. Modern ventilation systems are equipped with monitors and automated controls, which adjust the parameters depending on, for example, the outside temperature and the number of people in the building. But generally, reading a room’s airflow is like taking a patient’s blood pressure – a snapshot of ever-changing conditions.
The standards are low and their observance is indeed optional. There is no inspection system for air quality as is the case, for example, for elevator cables and food safety in restaurants. Building managers can announce all the measures they take without quantifying the effects. “If it’s just about complying with the code, it’s not enough, but no one has set firm ventilation targets,” says Joseph Allen, a healthy buildings expert at Harvard. “ASHRAE [the ventilation industry’s trade association] and the CDC say: Bring more outside air. The obvious question is: How much?The ambiguity leaves the building owners improvising and guessing. The nonprofit Ars Nova uses portable ionization air purifiers to supplement an obsolete HVAC system at its 199-seat theater on Barrow Street, which neither exhausts nor extracts air from outside. ” I am not a doctor ; I do theater, ”explains executive director Renée Blinkwolt. “But I took the expert advice, and they tell us it’s the best we can do.”
Large theaters and concert halls operate on a different order of magnitude than schools. The exhalations of several thousand immobilized people make their way to a high ceiling, where the heated, carbon-laden and germ-laden miasma is sucked into ducts and passed through ultra-fine MERV 13 filters or – when the system is down or simply malnourished – hovers there, swirling around cheap seats. A place contains a multitude of spaces, each with its own social dynamic and airflow. The Metropolitan Opera has a cavernous auditorium, but in the half hour before the curtain, the queue to collect tickets winds through a crowded hall. Theatergoers are – or were – used to the intermission craze, while heading for the bathroom often means waiting in a narrow stairwell that leads to the basement. During the evening, the air becomes more voluminous, and those who sit on the balcony inhale the concentrated fumes from below.
Many Broadway theaters date back to the Golden Age, and they have narrow stairwells, negligible legroom, and tight seats to show off, as well as backstage that make the dens of voles are spacious and hygienic. The NYTIX discount ticket broker’s website features a theater-by-theater description of the audience’s experience, and the Belasco comes for some particularly dyspeptic comments: “If smoke is used in the show, it will persist quite a long time on the balcony because the ventilation system is totally inadequate and often resembles the old days which allowed smoking in theaters.” . “(The Shubert organization, which owns Belasco, declined to elaborate on ventilation improvements in its theaters.)
Performers and crew members have an even greater interest in the safety of the air in which they work than the public. During the pandemic, Actors’ Equity began to demand that movie theater owners hire ventilation professionals inspect and, if necessary, overhaul their air handling systems. This has the double benefit of protecting its members and instilling confidence in a finicky audience. “I feel quite comfortable that the air I will breathe in any theater this fall will be safer and cleaner than in the same theater in March 2020,” said Andrea Hoeschen, in-house counsel. union. That’s a low bar, of course, and if the same claim will still hold true in a few years, it’s a guess.
For now, most sites are, at least publicly, more focused on the public’s willingness to comply with masking and vaccination requirements than on how they’ve improved their facilities. There is no scoring system to let the public know how safe it is to breathe, no regime of inspections and no one to verify that standards, once in place, are being maintained. Until recently, we always believed that the air in public buildings was free, or at least free of spores, particles, toxins and viruses, because we believed we had no choice. The pandemic has made it clear that trust is misplaced and that laxity can be dangerous.