Study: Green Matters in Office Settings


When it comes to productivity at work, does it matter whether your office is “green” or not?

Well, new Harvard research suggests “yes.”

Cognitive function improves in people who work in offices with below-average levels of indoor pollutants, like volatile organic compounds, according to a new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, SUNY Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University.

Cognitive performance scores for participants working in a “green” environment were 61 percent higher than those who worked in conventional environments, according to an announcement on the research.

The study, funded partially by the United Technologies Corp., was published Monday (Oct. 26) in Environmental Health Perspectives.

24 Participants, 6 Working Days

The double-blind study evaluated the cognitive performance of 24 participants, including architects, designers, programmers, engineers, and marketing professionals and took place over a six-day period in November 2014.

The participants performed their normal work in a controlled office environment simulating multiple conditions: conventional office settings with relatively high concentrations of VOCs; green conditions with low-VOC concentrations; green conditions with enhanced ventilation (dubbed “Green +”); and conditions with artificially elevated levels of carbon dioxide, independent of ventilation, according to the researchers.

At the end of each work day, the participants were given a series of cognitive tests.

Researchers measured nine functional domains including: basic, applied and focused activity levels; task orientation; crisis response; information seeking; information usage; breadth of approach and strategy.

The research team said it wanted to measure the impact of ventilation, chemicals, and CO2 on workers’ cognitive function, because as buildings have become more energy efficient, they have also become more airtight, which increases the potential for poor indoor environmental quality.

“We have been ignoring the 90%. We spend 90% of our time indoors and 90% of the cost of a building are the occupants, yet indoor environmental quality and its impact on health and productivity are often an afterthought,” said lead author Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science, director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment.

“These results suggest that even modest improvements to indoor environmental quality may have a profound impact on the decision-making performance of workers.”

The Findings

Cognitive performance scores for participants who worked in the Green + environments were, on average, double those participants who worked in conventional environments. Further, scores for those working in green environments were 61 percent higher than those working in conventional environments.

The researchers also found that strategy scores were 183 percent higher in green environments and 288 percent higher in Green + environments, compared to the conventional environment.

Modern office
© / jferrer

As buildings have become more energy efficient, they have also become more airtight, which increases the potential for poor indoor environmental quality, according to the researchers.

Crisis response scores were also of noted; those scores were 97 percent higher for the green environment and 131 percent higher for the green enhanced environment than conventional environment scores.

In addition, information usage scores were 172 percent and 299 percent higher in green and enhanced green environments, respectively, when compared to the conventional environment.

When the researchers examined the effect of CO2—not normally thought of as a direct indoor pollutant—they found that, for seven of the nine cognitive functions tested, average scores decreased as the level of CO2 increased to levels commonly seen in many indoor environments, according to the researchers.

A National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences environmental epidemiology training grant also helped fund the research.


Tagged categories: Architectural coatings; Building envelope; Color + Design; Design; Energy efficiency; Green building; Green coatings; Indoor air quality; Low-VOC; North America; Office Buildings; Research; Workers

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