The indoor built environment plays a critical role in our overall wellbeing, both due to the amount of time we spend indoors (~90%) and the ability of buildings to positively or negatively influence our health. This became abundantly clear with the appearance of sick building syndrome in the 1980’s. In response to increasing energy costs during this period, buildings were designed to be increasingly air tight, which in some cases led to a range of adverse health effects from elevated concentrations of pollutants in the indoor environment. Sustainable design or green building strategies were created to address the environmental and health impacts of buildings concurrently. The advent of sustainable design reinvigorated questions regarding the specific factors in buildings that lead to optimized conditions for health and productivity.
Our team partnered with United Technologies Corporation (UTC), Syracuse University, and SUNY Upstate Medical University to conduct the CogFx Study, which investigates the effect of different building types on health and cognitive function. We relocated 24 participants to the Syracuse Center of Excellence, a LEED platinum, green building for two weeks, where they conducted their regular work activities. This high-performing building allowed us to control the environmental conditions where the participants were working. We simulated “Green” (low chemical concentrations) and “Conventional” (typical chemical concentrations) building conditions. Recognizing that technological advances in mechanical systems opens the possibility of increasing ventilation rates without sacrificing energy efficiency, we also tested another building condition that introduced higher rates of ventilation to the Green building condition. This condition is labeled Green+. Last, we investigated CO2 as a direct pollutant, and not just an indicator of ventilation, by introducing CO2 while holding all other environmental factors constant.
The results were striking. Participants scored 61% higher during the Green condition and 101% higher during the Green+ condition compared to when those same participants were in the Conventional environment. CO2 was also found to have a similar effect on cognitive function scores, even at levels previously thought to be benign.
These findings have significant implications for building owners, developers, managers, architects and tenants as they show that the building plays a role in occupant productivity. Doubling the ventilation rate costs less than $40 per person per year in all U.S. climate zones. However, the same change in ventilation rate can increase the productivity of an employee by $6,500 a year. This difference is because 1% of the true cost of operating a building is energy; 90% of the cost is the salaries and benefits of the employees. Interventions that target this 90% have the potential to dwarf savings on energy alone.