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Buildings’ Effect On Occupants: Studying Human Performance In Green Buildings

Buildings’ Effect On Occupants: Studying Human Performance In Green Buildings

From ASHRAE Journal Newsletter, November 28, 2017

By Mary Kate McGowan, Associate Editor, News

High-performing, green buildings can do more than just decrease energy consumption. They can affect the people who live and work in them.

Starting in January, researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and SUNY Upstate Medical University are planning to study how green buildings affect human health and productivity in the workplace. The new study was announced at Greenbuild 2017 in early November in Boston and is the third part of the COGfx studies, which analyze green buildings’ impact on human performance.

Looking to address how green buildings can better support the humans who occupy them, the COGfx Study 3 will include 100 buildings from around the world, said Joseph Allen, the study’s principal investigator and assistant professor of exposure assessment science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The study’s results are expected to fill in the void of the lack of research on how green buildings’ indoor environmental quality affects human performance.

“We believe we’re getting a really rich data set that already is changing the conversation in the real estate industry, but I think the study has the potential to really accelerate the green building movement,” said John Mandyck, United Technologies’ chief sustainability officer. United Technologies supports the COGfx studies.

The two previous COGfx studies have been smaller but established the methodology for the third installment.

The first study tested 24 people in a controlled, simulated office environment where indoor environmental factors–such as higher ventilation rates and lower carbon dioxide levels–were changed. The participants performed standardized cognitive function tests to gauge the effects of the environment, according to Allen.

The first study found a doubling in cognitive function scores in an optimized indoor environment with high ventilation and low CO2 and VOC concentrations, he said.

The second study included 10 office buildings throughout the U.S. Using the same methodology in the natural work environment, the results yielded dramatic effects on people’s cognitive function related to indoor environment in the building, Allen said. The study found people who worked in certified green buildings had a 26% improvement in cognitive test scores. Factors such as thermal conditions, temperature, relative humidity and lighting also affected people’s performance on the tests, he said.

The third study is expected to include 100 buildings, with 10 people in each building, from around the world. The study will run for three years and will use the same methodology as the previous COGfx studies.

“We are trying to lift the entire real estate market by doing high-quality science to produce data that can lead to better decisions with how we operate, maintain and even design our buildings,” Allen said.

The study was developed to follow a longitudinal cohort of buildings over time using sensor technology that assesses employees’ cognitive function and performance.

Participants will wear wrist monitors and set up an environmental sensor on their desks. Both devices connect with Harvard’s “ForHealth” app that integrates the data from the sensors and is used to administer the cognitive function tests, such as short games and tests, to the participants.  

The researchers will monitor the offices’ indoor environments remotely but will not control the environments, said Mandyck. When the indoor environments become interesting, such as when CO2 levels spike, the researchers will be able to alert the participants to complete a cognitive test, said Allen.

“From the app, we’re able to control which types of questions are administered and when,” he said.

The real-time data collection eliminates the need for questionnaires, which can be affected by recall bias or forgetfulness, he said.

This study is the first time where the “ForHealth” technology will be rolled out as a full package, he said. Harvard has been developing and piloting the technology for several years.

At the end of the three-year study, the results will be refined and deciphered to reveal what indoor environment factors affect human productivity and which of those factors are the most important to human health and productivity, he said.

The COGfx Study 3 will also be the first time researchers will be able to make comparisons between international cities in this arena because of the study’s standardized methodologies, Allen said.

Allen said he is expecting some differences in the data due to the cities’ different locations. For example, outdoor air quality is an important factor for indoor air quality and differs from city to city, he said.

The study will fill the research void of how green buildings affect human health and productivity while also expanding the value proposition for green buildings beyond just energy savings, Mandyck said.

“Finally, we will be evaluating green buildings for the true value that they offer, which is value to the environment of course but also value to people,” he said.