“Some people say not to worry about the air
Some people never had experience with …
Air … Air
It can break your heart.”
— ”Talking Heads, “Air”
If you’re faced with the prospect of running a building in the middle of a pandemic caused by an airborne virus, it’s good to have someone like James “Doc” Doolittle on your payroll. Doolittle is a bit of a HVAC/ventilation nerd, and has for about seven years been senior director of facilities maintenance and engineering at the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau, which means he oversees the nuts and bolts at Little Rock’s historic Robinson Center, the Statehouse Convention Center and the First Security Amphitheater. (More on those venues and the pandemic’s impact on them here.) We talked to Doolittle about the crucial but often-invisible nature of his work, and about how he’s navigated LRCVB’s ventilation systems during the pandemic.
So, ventilation has become this huge part of the conversation around public health right now. What can you tell me about the ventilation systems used at LRCVB’s venues?
Well, I’ll start with the Robinson Center, which has luckily just been remodeled, and is a LEED-certified building, you know; it’s a LEED Gold building. So it’s up to the latest ASHRAE [American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers] standards on ventilation. ASHRAE is the governing board of ventilation standards. When it was rebuilt, we built it to a super high standard, so I didn’t have to make many adjustments to that building. There are a series of controls and design features in that building to make sure that we’re turning the air over enough times to meet the current ASHRAE standards.
Matter of fact, we have a couple of energy recovery units over there where we capture heating or cooling to temper the air coming out of that building, what they call ERUs. And how that works is: Rather than just dumping out conditioned air into the outside and bringing in unconditioned air, it uses a transfer wheel. It’s called an Enthalpy Wheel, and it captures some of that, either heated or cooled air, depending on whether it’s summer or winter, and tempers the air and turns that energy over so we don’t have to reheat or recool air every time. There are two big giant ones in Robinson that serve that purpose. We’re always bringing fresh air into that building at all times, so there’s never a point where it’s just stagnant air. Also, the filtration in that building is at a really high MERV level. I think it’s at, like, a 15. That’s hospital waiting room-grade filtration.
That was all in place before the pandemic?
Yeah. We got really lucky in that building. Now, over at the [Statehouse] Convention Center, we moved from MERV 11 filters up to MERV 13, what they call a “superior” commercial building. MERV 13 was the highest filtration we could do with the equipment that we currently have. There’s a static pressure — the pressure before the filter and the pressure after the filter — you can only restrict the airflow through the piece of equipment so much before you start having motors that can’t handle the pressure drop. From MERV 13 to MERV 16 is your high-end filtration. If you’re running an extremely clean building, that’s where you’re at. [MERV] 16 would be, like, an operating room. There are higher grades of MERV, but those would be for specialized stuff, like in a lab.
We’ve been working for many years, especially since I got here, to improve our energy efficiency. And as part of that, we’ve had to get all of our economizers working again, which is another way to exchange air. Those are all functioning again at the Statehouse Convention Center, whereas when I got here, they weren’t. Now, was that directly related to COVID? No. But it paid off. The investments that we’ve made over the last five years have paid off, because now we can bring all this fresh air into the building.
I’m sure the people at LRCVB are glad to have all that in place now, when lots of maintenance departments are scrambling to get there. Were those expenses hard to justify at the time, like was it a different calculation then?
That’s a good question. Some of the items we did were directly related to saving energy. Those are easy sells. Within that scope of work, we added in the fresh air makeups, just because it was the right thing to do. As you can imagine, if you’re bringing in hot steamy air from the outside, it’s not necessarily the best thing to do for energy efficiency, but it is the right thing to do for the building. You don’t want to have a sick building, right? So there was a lot of discussion during the time when we were doing our capital planning about which items were the right thing to do for energy efficiency and which were the right things to do for the people in the building. … And I’ve gotta be honest, I’m lucky. Gretchen [Hall] and the board are extremely open-minded when it comes to this stuff, so they were willing to make the investments. And we always knew that we wanted to create the best environment for both our staff and people coming to the building. People don’t want to be in a stuffy building.
As you’re talking about all of this, I’m realizing how much of your work to keep people comfortable stays pretty invisible, when you do it right.
Right! With air transfer, for example, we bring in air and ideally want to keep CO2 levels low. If you have 2,000 people walk into a room and start breathing and sweating, you want to keep those levels low. You want to bring in a whole bunch of fresh air. Now, they don’t know you’re doing that. They don’t see the sensors on the walls. But they would know if you weren’t doing it. High CO2 levels aren’t something you think about, but if you’re in a room — I’m sure you’ve been in a meeting and you’re getting tired and you don’t really know why — a lot of it may have to do with the CO2 levels in that room. You’ll feel fatigued. You won’t feel right. So there’s a lot happening in the background of big spaces that you don’t necessarily see. That’s why air exchange was so important at the Robinson Center. You’re dealing with large numbers of people moving in and out of spaces, and you want to be able to maintain proper air quality.
Are you saying that there are CO2 sensors in Robinson that auto-adjust?
That’s correct. There’s always a baseline of fresh air coming in, but there are sensors throughout the building that can sense CO2 levels and as that rises — as people exhale, basically — we bring in more fresh air. And actually, we’re implementing those at the Statehouse Convention Center, too.
What’s this part of your job been like since the pandemic hit?
At 101 Spring St. — the Cromwell Building [where the LRCVB offices are] — and at the Statehouse Convention Center, we’re turning over the building more, so we’re bringing in more fresh air. Also, at those two locations, we’ve gone from MERV 11 to MERV 13.
Are there things, based on your depth of knowledge about this stuff, that you’d like to see changed or see more investment in?
We are investing in more CO2 sensors throughout all of our facilities, and those will be rolled out throughout 2021. That’s part of our new capital plan, which wasn’t part of the capital plan before COVID. It’s something we’d mulled over, but it didn’t seem top of the list [before the pandemic]. Bringing fresh air into our buildings now is top of the list.
Unless someone owns a building or works in your field, they probably didn’t think much about ventilation before this year, and now we’re obsessed with it. How do you keep up with what’s going on? Like, how do you nerd out on air exchange standards and all that?
I keep abreast of what ASHRAE recommendations are pretty intently. I’m also a member of the Arkansas chapter of the Association of Energy Engineers, another kind of society. Those are the main governing boards we pay attention to in the building and facilities field. Those are my real go-tos.
Did people in the engineering field, before this year, talk about potential scenarios like a pandemic?
There’s been a lot of discussion about wellness in building standards — and that’s a certification, too, WELL. We’re all working toward making the conditions inside buildings more like outside, basically. Over the last 10 years, there’s been a lot of focus on making the inside environment cleaner and more healthy for the people inside those environments. So, although it wasn’t focused on the possibility of a pandemic, it all relates. If you have an indoor space that’s more like outside, it’s safer. But it also has to be the right temperature; it can’t be wildly hot. It can’t be wildly cold.