Research shows clear correlation between green buildings and occupant health

Green buildings do in fact have a measurable impact on both occupant health, as well as quality of life measures such as sleep. Damian Carrington, writing for The Guardian reports on a recent study supported by a gift from United Technologies to the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health:

The research analysed workers in certified green buildings in five US cities and compared them with other workers in the same cities employed in different offices owned by the same companies.

“We saw higher cognitive function scores for workers in green certified buildings, compared to their counterparts in buildings that were still high performing, but which had not achieved green certification,” said Joseph Allen, at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in the US…

Furthermore, the green building workers reported 30% fewer “sick building syndrome” symptoms, such as headaches and eye and respiratory irritation. Increased energy efficiency of buildings has raised concerns about the impact of poorer ventilation, although modern technology enables heat to be retained while air is kept fresh.

The green buildings had better ventilation and therefore lower levels of carbon dioxide and chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are emitted by furniture and carpets. Previous research by the Harvard group in controlled lab conditions showed this significantly boosts cognitive scores and could increase the productivity of each worker by thousands of dollars a year for investments of just tens of dollars per worker.

Fortunately, unlike a lot of today’s peer-reviewed research, this particular study has been made publicly available under a Creative Commons license at Science Direct. While The Guardian’s article is interesting, for A/E/C professionals, I think you’ll find the paper’s abstract to be much more satisfying:

Thirty years of public health research have demonstrated that improved indoor environmental quality is associated with better health outcomes. Recent research has demonstrated an impact of the indoor environment on cognitive function. We recruited 109 participants from 10 high-performing buildings (i.e. buildings surpassing the ASHRAE Standard 62.1–2010 ventilation requirement and with low total volatile organic compound concentrations) in five U.S. cities. In each city, buildings were matched by week of assessment, tenant, type of worker and work functions. A key distinction between the matched buildings was whether they had achieved green certification. Workers were administered a cognitive function test of higher order decision-making performance twice during the same week while indoor environmental quality parameters were monitored. Workers in green certified buildings scored 26.4% (95% CI: [12.8%, 39.7%]) higher on cognitive function tests, controlling for annual earnings, job category and level of schooling, and had 30% fewer sick building symptoms than those in non-certified buildings. These outcomes may be partially explained by IEQ factors, including thermal conditions and lighting, but the findings suggest that the benefits of green certification standards go beyond measureable IEQ factors. We describe a holistic “buildingomics” approach for examining the complexity of factors in a building that influence human health.


From the paper’s discussion section:

“Buildingomics” is the totality of factors in indoor environments that influence human health, well-being and productivity of people who work in those spaces. The primary challenge is that buildings serve a variety of purposes and the potential exposures span several fields of study; thus multi-disciplinary teams that include building scientists, exposure scientists, epidemiologists, toxicologists, materials scientists, architects, designers, and social/behavioral scientists are necessary to characterize all the building-related factors that influence health in buildings

Definitely some interesting concepts worthy of further investigation and discussion.


Image courtesy Wikimedia