Can indoor building features such as ventilation, pollutant-reduction, and lighting influence our thinking, behavior and health? New research suggests a big “yes.” According to latest research, environmental factors within your building — the degree or type of ventilation, airborne contaminants, lighting and noise levels, for example — can play a significant role in how good or bad you feel, and even how well you think.
This research is part of a budding multidisciplinary field of “healthy building” research that is addressing a widespread phenomenon. While the Environmental Protection Agency estimates we spend more than 90 percent of our time indoors, builders in general have paid scant attention to the health aspects of indoor spaces, instead focusing on design features and on meeting minimum environmental standards to keep costs down.
Researchers interested in environmental health issues are taking a hard look at this gap, examining whether changes in indoor variables — carbon dioxide levels or the color or amount of lighting, for example — might influence our performance, behavior and health. Among the investigators are psychologists, who are making new inroads into their long-term study of the office environment by collaborating with health-care practitioners, engineers, human factors specialists and public health researchers to see how the indoor environment may impact such psychological variables as cognition and behavior.
There is a growing recognition that not only does the kind of work that we do matter to our health and productivity, but that the physical environment affects those outcomes as well.
That’s potentially good news: Such findings may give us the ability to adjust our surroundings in ways that could make a significant difference in our well-being and productivity—not just in the office, but at home and elsewhere, too.
In one line of study, researchers at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health assessed the effects of indoor air quality on worker’s cognitive performance, factors important for both health and a company’s bottom line. The true cost of running our buildings should take into account the health and productivity of people in those buildings. In fact, an analysis by the team demonstrated that the cost of making changes that could vastly improve cognitive performance was minuscule compared with the related increase in productivity, about $40 per person per year, compared with a $6,500 increase in employee productivity.
The findings are remarkable for showing, in a well-controlled study, that indoor air quality factors can significantly degrade cognitive performance in buildings that would otherwise meet current building standards.
Healthy Buildings, Productive People
In a second study, the Harvard-Syracuse team moved from the lab to the real world. Using the same methodology, they compared test scores of 109 people working in 10 buildings — about 12 people per site — in two buildings in each of five cities. All of the buildings shared good ventilation rates and low levels of VOCs and carbon dioxide, but only one in each pair had been certified by a green-building certification organization. The building pairs were assessed concurrently and also shared the same company tenant, which ensured a similar workforce in both types of buildings.
Workers in green-certified buildings scored 26.4 percent higher on the cognitive tasks than those in non-certified buildings. They also had 30 percent fewer “sick building” symptoms than those in non-certified buildings: fewer headaches and respiratory complaints, for example. They slept better on returning home at night, too, as measured by a wristwatch that tracks sleep quality.
When the team examined the buildings for differences, they found that certified buildings had lower humidity levels and brighter light than the non-certified buildings. That said, the differences in humidity and lighting didn’t entirely explain the differing cognitive function scores, leading the researchers to believe environmental perceptions or other factors may also play a part.
The Well Living Lab
Researchers at the new Well Living Lab in Rochester, Minnesota are embarking on similar studies in another state-of-the-art testing facility. The lab offers six large research modules that can be configured as office, home, hotel and other spaces, as well as a system of sensors that can test a wide range of environmental factors. In addition, the facility has reconfigurable ceilings, floors, windows and other room elements that allow researchers to vary aspects of lighting, temperature, humidity, sound and air quality.
The study showed that changing the lab conditions had measurable effects on lab occupants, with some particular themes emerging. Overall, the workers said they disliked conditions with no natural light, as well as temperatures below 71 degrees and higher noise volumes. They felt confined in rooms with closed shades, and happier when windows let in daylight. When the temperature was below 71, they made efforts to get more comfortable, for example by donning extra clothes or bringing in images of fireplaces to put on available TV monitors. When the workers heard noises that simulated speaking, they reported feeling distracted and having trouble concentrating on the task at hand.
On a positive note, workers exposed to blue-enhanced lighting, that is, lighting in the blue part of the light spectrum, said they slept better that week than those in other conditions, a finding that echoes other research which finds that blue-range lighting affects the production of melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone.
A new building on the Washington University campus in St. Louis, Missouri, is providing another opportunity to examine how green building design can affect health and behavior. Called Hillman Hall, the 20,000-square-foot space houses a new school of public health as well as overflow faculty and students from the university’s Brown School of Social Work, located in two separate buildings.
The new building was designed with the highest LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) standards available, as well as design elements intended to foster more collaboration, physical activity and sustainable energy practices. The design includes easy access to stairways, plenty of natural light, generous spaces for collaboration, desks that allow people to sit or stand up, and inviting places to walk. Unlike traditional hallways designed as long corridors with private offices to either side, for example, these hallways include classrooms, offices and spaces to sit, so they are multi-use, encouraging many reasons to walk them.
Testing how the building might affect people’s behavior, researchers conducted a pre-test before people moved in, and a post-test one year later. Researchers monitored study participants using surveys, accelerometers that measure physical activity, focus groups and text-message data collection, among other tools.
The research indicated that people were more likely to take part in spontaneous collaborations in the new space than in the older ones, and to be physically active within the new space. In some cases, increased activity was linked specifically to design features: People said they liked having to walk to a centralized printer area to retrieve copies—exactly what the designers had hoped for. In addition, employees in the new space used office lights about half as often as colleagues in the other buildings, thanks to the abundance of natural light.
For Further Reading:
• “Healthy Buildings, Healthy People”, article at E.P.A. website: https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/healthy-buildings-healthy-people-vision-21st-century
• “Green Buildings and Healthy Buildings” posted by World Green Building Council and found at: https://www.worldgbc.org/news-media/green-buildings-and-healthy-buildings
• “Healthy Buildings are More Important than Ever”. article posted at FacilitiesNet, https://www.facilitiesnet.com/green/article/Healthy-Buildings-Are-More-Important-Than-Ever–18900