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Study Finds Strong Connection Between Healthy Indoor Air, Employee Sharpness & Productivity


The results of a 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 show the connection between well-ventilated buildings and improved worker decision-making. In fact, the study of 24 workers found that improved indoor environmental quality actually doubled occupants’ cognitive function test scores. In the study, the 24 professional employees—architects, designers, programmers, engineers, creative marketing professionals and managers—participated in a six-day study examining the impact of green buildings on cognitive performance and decision-making performance. For the two-week test period, they relocated to the Total Indoor Environmental Quality Laboratory at the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems in Syracuse, N.Y.

At the laboratory they conducted their normal work activities in conditions designed to simulate those found in conventional buildings, green buildings and green buildings with enhanced ventilation. At the end of each day, participants completed a 1.5-hour cognitive assessment. The Strategic Management Simulation tool was used to evaluate decision-making, giving participants the freedom to make decisions based on their own cognitive styles and reflecting their performance in the real-world. “The gains in performance output could be seen in areas such as the handling of day-to-day workplace challenges, which is due to the fact that in improved indoor environments, participants were better able to understand and use their resources with optimal task prioritization,” said Dr. Usha Satish, SUNY-Upstate Medical University. As part of the double-blind COGfx Study, participants completed a daily, 1.5-hour cognitive assessment of nine key cognitive domains using a validated, computer-based test, known as the Strategic Management Simulation. The test exposed the group to diverse situations based on real-world challenges, allowing flexibility in approach, as well as the freedom to strategize and take initiative in their own cognitive style.

Of note, participants’ cognitive performance scores averaged 101 percent higher in green buildings with enhanced ventilation compared to those in conventional buildings. The COGfx Study found the best performance with carbon dioxide (CO2) levels below 600 parts per million, ventilation rates at 40 cubic feet per minute per person, and total volatile organic compounds (VOCs) below 50 micrograms per cubic meter. In conventional buildings, carbon dioxide levels can be at 950 parts per million with ventilation rates at 20 cubic feet per minute of outdoor air per person. Indoor total VOCs can range from between 500 to 700 micrograms per cubic meter.

A follow-up study by The COGfx Study team found that doubling the ventilation rate in typical office buildings can be reached at an energy cost of between $14 and $40 per person per year, resulting in a $6,500 equivalent in improved productivity per person per year.

The study confirms the results of other studies that have linked worker productivity and attitude with environmental conditions. Interestingly, this study suggests that workers are even actually smarter under green building conditions. That is good news for the many hotel developers who are building to LEED requirements and investing wisely in ventilation and low-VOC materials. Click here to access the study results.