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New Study Links 'Green' Buildings to Higher Cognitive Function

Image Credit: Inhabitat

Can better thinking and better health be found in green-certified buildings? New research says yes. Both indoors and out, the built environment plays a critical role in our overall health and well-being. This is especially true as about 90 percent of our time is spent indoors, and buildings have the ability to positively and negatively influence human health.

Now, a new study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment and SUNY Upstate Medical University has found a link between green buildings and improved cognitive function.

Conducted in the fall and winter of 2015-2016 with funding from United Technologies and presented in the fall of 2016, The Impact of Working in a Green Certified Building on Cognitive Function and Health study, found that occupants of green-certified, high-performing buildings saw 26 percent higher cognitive function scores, slept better and reported fewer health symptoms compared to those in similarly high-performing buildings that were not green-certified.

To perform the study, 24 participants spent six full work days in an environmentally-controlled office building at the TIEQ lab at the Syracuse Center of Excellence. Participants were exposed to conditions representative of conventional and green office buildings in the U.S., as well as green buildings with enhanced ventilation.

  • Conventional: typical (~500 ppm) volatile organic compound (VOC) levels and 20 cfm outdoor air per person
  • ‘Green’: VOC levels reduced to approximately 50 μg/m3 and 20 cfm outdoor air per person
  • ‘Green’ with enhanced ventilation: VOC levels reduced to approximately 50 μg/m3 and 40 cfm outdoor air per person

View the full infographic

Researchers also artificially elevated CO2 levels independent of ventilation. Participants were blinded to indoor environmental quality status each day. At the end of each day, they were administered a cognitive test using the Strategic Management Software Executive Decision tool, which tests live decision-making performance by simulating real-world scenarios and has been used worldwide for the last six decades. This validated method allowed the research team to understand any changes in cognitive function that might be attributable to building design features.

The study identified three main findings:

  • Across the board, green building conditions produced higher scores compared to conventional ones across nine functional domains. The greatest cognitive function differences were seen in the areas of crisis response (73 percent higher in green-certified, high=performing buildings); applied activity level — the ability to gear decision-making toward overall goals (44 percent); focused activity level — the capacity to pay attention to situations at hand (38 percent); and strategy (31 percent).
  • Sleep quality scores were recorded as being 6.4 percent higher for participants in green-certified buildings, suggesting building impact on sleep quality.
  • And finally, participants reported better environmental perceptions and 30 percent fewer sick building systems in high-performing, green-certified buildings vs. high-performing, non-certified buildings.

CO2, VOCs and ventilation rate all had significant, independent impacts on cognitive function. Because the study was designed to reflect indoor environments encountered by large numbers of people every day, these findings have far-ranging implications for worker productivity, student learning and safety.

While these findings are significant, researchers believe a more holistic approach is needed, more specifically, Buildingomics. “We’re advocating for what we call Buildingomics – a new approach that examines the totality of factors in the building-related environment that influence the human health, well-being and productivity of people who work in buildings. Through Buildingomics’ multi-disciplinary approach, we aim to better understand the building-related factors that influence health in buildings and unlock the ability to optimize buildings for cognitive function and health,” said Dr. Joseph Allen, assistant professor of Exposure Assessment Science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and principal investigator for the study.

Considering the benefits outlined in the study, pursuing green building certification could prove to be a smart (and financially savvy) business move for companies and building owners alike. The extra steps taken to obtain certification do more than reduce energy consumption or support sustainability goals, they now have a measurable, positive impact on the thinking and health of those occupying the building. Better buildings that result in better thinking and health can help enhance employees’ performance, productivity and well-being; serve as recruiting tools for HR managers; and provide a differentiator, and perhaps even a competitive advantage, for building owners.

For building owners and businesses and businesses looking to achieve these results, a variety of IEQ credits currently available through green building certification organizations, such as LEED and BREEAM. The study team reviewed several of the leading international green building standards – LEED® New Construction 2009, Green Star Office v3, BREEAM® New Construction 2014, BCA Green Mark for new non-residential buildings v4.1 2013 and DGNB New Office v2012 – and found that all of them have credits for thermal comfort, indoor air quality (IAQ) and lighting. These factors have been associated with cognitive function scores in the COGfx studies.

The study can be read in full here.

Further information about the study and its methodologies can be found on the United Technologies website.


Libby MacCarthy is an Editorial Assistant at Sustainable Brands, based in Maine and France. She is a former urban planner specializing in sustainable cities, and an urban farming and film photography enthusiast. She holds a BA in Environment, Society and… [Read more about Libby MacCarthy]