Can we stop ignoring the 90% please?

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Why are we ignoring the 90 percent?

It’s a question we should ask ourselves when we think about the benefits of green buildings – and here’s why.

20 years ago, green buildings were seen as the sustainable solution for a rapidly urbanizing world. We know they conserve natural resources, minimize environmental impacts and improve the indoor environment. However, the cost of energy takes up less than 1% of a building’s true operating costs. 90% of the costs associated with a building come from the people inside it – salaries and benefits. On top of that, we spend 90% of our time indoors.

For years, we’ve been chasing the 1%. Now, we can no longer ignore the 90%.

That’s due in part to groundbreaking results from a new study by researchers at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, SUNY Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University, with support from United Technologies and its UTC Climate, Controls & Security business.

"The Impact of Green Buildings on Cognitive Function,” also known as The COGfx Study, found that improved indoor environmental quality doubled participants' scores on cognitive function tests.

It turns out, intelligence is in the air. On average, cognitive scores were:

  • 61% higher in green building conditions
  • 101% higher in enhanced green building conditions

We believe these results have the potential to change everything for how we think about buildings. And here’s how it was done.

The double-blind study evaluated the cognitive performance of 24 participants who experienced conditions in a laboratory setting that simulate those in convention and green buildings, as well as green buildings with enhanced ventilation.

Over the course of six days spread across a two-week period, participants spent each day conducting their normal work activities in indoor environments encountered every day by large numbers of workers.  At the end of each day, participants were administered a cognitive assessment using a validated, computer-based test.

Cognitive function was measured in nine areas, including basic, applied and focused activity levels; task orientation; crisis response; information seeking; information usage; breadth of approach; and strategy. 

The study found that cognitive function scores were better in green building conditions compared to the conventional building conditions across nine functional domains, including crisis response, strategy, and information usage – where we see the largest improvements in cognitive function:

  • Crisis response scores were 97% higher for the green environment and 131% higher for the green environment with enhanced ventilation.
  • Information usage scores for green and enhanced green environments were 172 and 299% higher than in the conventional environment, respectively.
  • For strategy, green and enhanced green scores were 183 and 288% higher than the conventional environment.

These results suggest that there is a connection between better indoor environmental quality and decision-making test scores.

We believe that these findings also show that buildings can become vital human resource tools where cognitive abilities are critical to productivity, learning and safety.

The payback for improved indoor environmental quality far outweighs the investment, considering that again – more than 90% of the costs associated with a building are related to the people who work within it once construction is completed.

And, unlike many productivity measures that require a learning curve, all one has to do is breathe.

We think The COGfx Study can potentially accelerate the green building movement beyond its known and equally important benefits of energy efficiency and water conservation. And, when we tell the story of the value of green buildings, we need to consider them as stories about people – not just buildings.

As this study shows, better buildings result in better thinking and healthy, productive people.

The COGfx Study filled important knowledge gaps in existing research about the relationship between green buildings and occupant health.

It’s now up to us to take the lead in building green buildings that are good for the planet, and now, as this study shows – good for the people within them.  

The next phase of the study will take place in real buildings across the United States. I expect a similar conclusion: that when it comes to the decision-making ability of green building occupants, intelligence is in the air.

So, let’s stop ignoring the 90%.

The full report is available here

About John Mandyck

John Mandyck

John Mandyck serves as Chief Sustainability Officer for United Technologies Corporation. A global leader in the aerospace, food refrigeration and commercial building industries, United Technologies provides high-technology systems and services that set the standard for performance, reliability and energy efficiency.

John chairs the Corporate Advisory Board of the World Green Building Council, and serves as chairman of the Board of Directors for the Urban Green Council in New York City. He is a member of the Corporate Council at the Harvard University Center for Health and the Global Environment. He was appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Energy to co-chair the Department of Energy’s Appliance Standards and Rulemaking Federal Advisory Committee. John is the co-author of the book Food Foolish, which explores the hidden connection between food waste, hunger and climate change. He has presented energy efficiency, sustainability and future of food strategies to audiences around the world. 

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