Rapid retrofit research to help get workers back to the office

A man sits at a table in a dark room, pushing air out of a plastic bottle. A bright light shows how the air travels
Research fellow in fluid mechanics Dr Grant M. Skidmore is part of the team of fluid dynamics experts measuring complex airflow patterns that can carry infectious disease. Image: Andrew Bott Photography

The City of Melbourne has unveiled an innovative new project to minimise COVID-19 transmission in office buildings by retrofitting ventilation systems.

The pilot research project ‘BREATH’ will trial and evaluate different ventilation systems in a vacant CBD building, in partnership with the University of Melbourne and CBUS Property.

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the project will provide a framework for landlords and businesses to rapidly retrofit offices and give people confidence to return to the workplace.

“We know that fear of infection and mask mandates are two of the biggest barriers to a large-scale return of office workers to the city,” the Lord Mayor said.

“Most conventional ventilation systems offer only low levels of protection from air-borne contamination. The BREATH pilot will investigate the most cost-effective systems needed to improve air quality and reduce COVID-19 transmission in the workplace.

“This project also has the potential to create hundreds of jobs, as we step up to the challenge and implement these important changes to protect the 310,000 people working in offices in Melbourne’s CBD.”

As part of project ‘BREATH’, University of Melbourne researchers will trial three types of ventilation systems. A cost-analysis will be performed to determine how much each retrofit measure will cost per square metre.

The University of Melbourne’s Head of Mechanical Engineering, Professor Jason Monty, said project ‘BREATH’ addresses a previously overlooked problem.

“Our team of fluid dynamics experts will be measuring the complex airflow patterns between occupants that can carry infectious disease,” Professor Monty said.

“We’ll combine that with monitoring energy use, temperature and human comfort to determine the most efficient ventilation systems.

“This is the first time such a team has come together to solve this massive problem from energy-use and infection control perspectives simultaneously.”

The University of Melbourne’s Vice-President of Strategy & Culture, Dr Julie Wells, said: “This work reflects the University of Melbourne’s ongoing commitment to supporting the recovery of the City of Melbourne as we emerge from the pandemic.

“Our academics are great innovators and, in partnership with the City, community and industry, help us to face the future with optimism.”

Sustainable Building portfolio lead Councillor Elizabeth Doidge said the BREATH project will aim to improve air quality and ventilation within the office and move the city closer to its goal of zero carbon buildings.

“This project will be critical in helping to develop a framework to return office workers back to our city,” Cr Doidge said.

“Building owners will also be able to see the cost benefits and environmental outcomes in updating their ventilation systems.

“We need to lead the way on how to best retrofit our office spaces to take advantage of the energy efficiency benefits and continue our hard work to reduce municipal carbon emissions.”

Findings from the three-month trial will be made available to building owners, tenants and partners to inform how best to improve their workplaces.