Get Owner to Use Hazard-Free Materials in Improvements

June 6, 2012
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Q: Most commercial tenants that are leasing space would like the owner to make certain improvements, such as installing carpeting and painting the walls. But if you’re concerned that the owner will use products that are harmful to your employees’ health, is it reasonable to request that the owner use less harmful products for these improvements?

A: Yes, it’s reasonable to make such a request, say real estate experts. Indoor air quality (IAQ) problems have been popping up in buildings around the nation. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, by mid-afternoon the indoor air of a typical office building is three to five times more polluted than the air outside on the city streets. Poor IAQ can lead to a wide range of ailments among your employees--including eye or nose irritation, headaches, fatigue, and sore throats--which can increase sick days, decrease productivity, and ultimately affect your ability to run your business effectively.

Often, the main culprits of poor IAQ are products containing “volatile organic chemicals” (VOCs). Products with high VOC emissions are typically corrosive, carcinogenic, or irritating chemicals that quickly evaporate into the air and can make people ill. For example, adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products, pesticides, and cleaning agents may emit high levels of VOCs, including formaldehyde. To prevent high-VOC-emitting products from harming your employees, state in the letter of intent for the space you would like to lease, that the owner must use low-VOC-emitting paints, carpets, sealants, and other finishes in your space when constructing the improvements. Such products are commercially available, and an owner can easily ask its product supplier for them. Office furniture constructed of cleaner materials is also available.

Be aware that proper lighting is also important to promote a healthy and productive working environment. Indicate in your letter of intent that the owner must install “full-spectrum lighting” at your space. Full-spectrum lighting simulates daylight better than incandescent, halogen, and fluorescent lights. And full-spectrum lighting helps reduce eyestrain, saves energy, lasts much longer than incandescent lights, and can substantially increase productivity. Many owners will agree to use such products and lighting; they want to make their tenants happy, and avoid claims that the owner’s use of high-VOC-emitting products made a tenant’s employees sick. Also, healthier buildings give their owners a marketing edge because such buildings become more attractive to new tenants. Despite this, you need to make sure your building's owner follows through in using the required low-VOC-emitting products and lighting. To do that, monitor the owner’s construction work at the space, and check the products used.