Healthier classrooms for Kiwi kids

Many New Zealand primary-school children struggle through the winter months with respiratory and infectious illnesses. Could improving air quality in classrooms help their health?

Frequent winter illnesses cause many primary school-aged children to be absent from school, less able to concentrate on their studies and struggling to achieve—the knock-on effects of which could extend into later life.

During the winter, people spend up to 90% of their time inside, where the air is typically much more polluted than outdoors. High levels of pollutants and allergens can cause or exacerbate seasonal illness and asthma. Asthma affects 25% of New Zealand children; the United States Environmental Protection Agency considers indoor air pollution to be among the top five environmental risks to public health.

School's open, but windows shut

Many New Zealand classrooms are housed in older buildings, with poor insulation and inadequate heating and ventilation. Classroom upgrades are prohibitively expensive, leaving some schools unable to provide healthy learning environments for children. Poor indoor air quality resulting from lack of ventilation is a key concern; most New Zealand schools depend on open windows for ventilation, but from April to October classroom windows and doors tend to stay shut, and some are permanently closed for security reasons.

A 2015 study conducted by Massey University’s School of Engineering and Advanced Technology (SEAT) and industry partner APL Window Solutions in 40 schools across Auckland found that only 40% of teachers open windows. Without fresh air flow, children are exposed to avoidably high levels of respirable pathogens, pollutants, carbon dioxide and humidity. Furthermore, a low level of fresh air will also adversely impact on children’s performance at school.

A Healthy School expert team from Massey University, GNS Science, Building Research Association of New Zealand (BRANZ), MidCentral DHB and University of Otago’s Department of Public Health, led by Massey’s Dr Mikael Boulic of SEAT, wanted to find out whether improving the air quality in classrooms would have a positive impact on students’ health and levels of absenteeism.

“Children are required by law to be at school and the space they occupy needs to be healthy and allow the children to be alert and focused,” says team member Professor Robyn Phipps of SEAT. “Noise control is important, too, but often overlooked. Finding facilities solutions that are economical and healthy is critical so that schools can spend their budgets on education rather than on building repairs or energy.”

Let the sun do the work

The research team conducted an interventional study in 12 low-decile primary school classrooms in Palmerston North over two school terms in the winters of 2013 and 2014 to investigate the impacts of a low-cost, solar-heated ventilation system on air quality and students' health. In the first monitoring period, six classrooms were ventilated and six were kept under normal conditions for the school as controls. A low-cost, commercially available ventilation system provided clean air warmed by the sun in a roof-mounted system.

During the winter terms, the average temperature of the air coming into the ventilated classrooms was above 30 degrees for 80% of the time, and at times up to 55 degrees. This heated fresh air dispersed through the classroom to raise the background temperature by 1 to 2 degrees.

Environmental and health parameters were also measured, including monthly throat swabs for streptococci (conducted and supported by MidCentral District Health Board); and measurements of total airborne bacteria (with analysis supported by NZ Genomics Ltd), room temperature, carbon dioxide, relative humidity and energy used for heating.

Significant energy savings

The results of the research are greatly anticipated, given that few studies have been conducted in New Zealand on air quality in schools. Data analysis from the study is expected to be completed by the end of 2016 as part of a PhD project. The researchers are hoping to see a correlation between increased ventilation and a reduction in respiratory infections, sick days and chemical pollutants. Early anecdotal feedback from teachers was positive and significant energy savings were made as a result of a reduced need for other heating.

Treatment classrooms

While waiting for the results to be analysed, the researchers have embarked on a more extensive Healthy Air in Schools Project in Auckland and Wellington. Industry and government partners are on board and plans are underway to set up a research and demonstration lab in both cities in existing prefab classrooms.

In each city, one 1970s-era classroom will be a control and another will be the treatment classroom, which will be cost-effectively upgraded to try to get the environment factors of humidity, temperature, particulate matter (PM) and CO2 levels to meet World Health Organization standards. Upon completion of the upgrade, the classrooms will be monitored empty for a year, then in the second year students will use the classrooms.

The retrofit will include special flooring that will make cleaning more efficient and reduce the released PM from the floor. Preliminary results on PM (with monitoring and analysis funded by GNS Science) showed a high level of PM up to 10 microns in diameter, identified as soil that had been tracked into the classrooms by children’s footwear and re-suspended from the carpet into the air by the children’s activities.

“Smart” windows developed in partnership with APL Window Solutions and a team of students led by Dr Khalid Arif of SEAT will also be installed and tested. A sensor measuring CO2 levels, temperature and relative humidity will control the opening and closing of window vents via an actuator (a type of motor) using a Bluetooth signal.

Research’s practical application

David Waters of APL Window Solutions says the traditional approach to the window and door design has largely centred around structural and weather-tightness performance, with little thought given to indoor air quality and the important role that windows play in maintaining a healthy indoor environment.

“As building standards improve and the focus on airtightness increases, we can no longer rely on air leakage as a mechanism for ventilation within the building envelope,” he says. “Operable windows can provide fresh air and natural ventilation, but studies have shown that they are rarely used to maximise natural ventilation, especially in the colder months. The research being carried out by Mikael and his colleagues at Massey has had an enormous impact on APL’s approach to future window and door development, specifically around the area of passive ventilation.”

In September 2016, an Education Facilities symposium was organised with educators, designers, policy-makers, builders and industry and government partners to establish a task force and develop the research plan for healthier classrooms. The findings of the Palmerston North, Wellington and Auckland studies will be used to develop guidelines for the Ministry of Education and school designers.

Diverse team

Dr Mikael Boulic (far right) and some of the Healthy School Team The Healthy School Team consists of:

  • Dr Mikael Boulic (Lecturer in Construction at SEAT)
  • Professor Robyn Phipps (Professor in Construction at SEAT)
  • Professor Chris Cunningham (Professor in the Research Centre for Māori Health and Development, Massey University)
  • Dr Khalid Arif (Lecturer in Mechatronics and Robotics at SEAT)
  • Dr Patrick Biggs, Dr Juan Carlos Garcia Ramirez and Lynn
    Rogers (Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, Massey University)
  • Yu Wang (SEAT)
  • Agate Ponder-Sutton (Institute of Natural and Mathematical Sciences, Massey University)
  • Professor Philippa Howden-Chapman, Professor Michael Baker, Dr Nevil Pierse and Dr Julie Bennett (Department of Public Health, University of Otago)
  • Dr Bill Trompetter, Dr Perry Davy and Dr Travis Ancelet (GNS Science)
  • Dr Rob Weir, Dr Keri Ratima and Jan Guppy (MidCentral DHB)
  • Dr Manfred Plagmann (BRANZ)
  • Les Clapcott (Ministry of Education)
  • David Waters (APL Window Solutions)
  • Eamon Corless (Solar Venti Australia)
  • Michael Cullen (Net Zero Energy Solutions)
  • Plus several students from Massey University and interns from France who are contributing to the success of the team.

"Without fresh air flow, children are exposed to avoidably high levels of respirable pathogens, pollutants, carbon dioxide and humidity."


Research start date

  • 2012

Research end date

  • 2015




Contact Dr Mikael Boulic

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