Oset Babur in Harvard Magazine:
Imagine a business that creates a perfectly energy-efficient environment by adjusting ventilation rates in its workplace. On paper, the outcome would seem overwhelmingly positive: fewer greenhouse-gas emissions to the environment and lowered costs to the business. It’s an idyllic scenario, except for what Joseph Allen and his team at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) describe as the potentially serious human cost: workers with chronic migraines, nausea, fatigue, and difficulty focusing. Fortunately, these side effects are avoidable.
“The truth is, we absolutely can have buildings that are both energy-efficient and healthy,” says Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science. In 2015, his team published a two-part study that quantified the cognitive benefits of improved environmental conditions for workers. The first phase took place in the Syracuse University Center for Excellence, where knowledge workers, such as architects and engineers, went about their regular workdays as Allen and his team manipulated environmental factors. “We weren’t looking to test an unattainable, dream-state workplace. We wanted to test scenarios and conditions that would be possible to replicate,” he explains. They adjusted ventilation rates, carbon dioxide levels, and the quantity of airborne VOCs (volatile organic chemical compounds that are emitted by common objects such as desk chairs and white boards). At the end of each day, the team asked workers to complete cognitive-function assessments in nine key areas, including crisis response, decisionmaking, and strategy. “We saw pretty dramatic effects,” he reports: workers in optimized environments scored 131 percent better in crisis-response questions, 299 percent better on information usage, and 288 percent higher in strategy.