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Syracuse University study shows indoor air quality boosts productivity

Improved indoor air quality can boost the cognitive function of people working inside buildings, according to a new study conducted in part by researchers at Syracuse University.

The study found that people who work in green buildings with enhanced ventilation had cognitive performance scores double those of participants who worked in conventional buildings. The study comes from SU, the State University of New York Upstate Medical University and Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

These results are significant because people aren’t working in manual labor anymore; they’re in the office instead, said Suresh Santanam, co-investigator and professor of biomedical and chemical engineering at SU.

There are hundreds of thousands of buildings in New York state where office workers spend their days, Santanam said. They constantly access and process information, and make decisions based on that information. Cognitive function is critical for human beings to perform these tasks, he said.

John Mandyck, the chief sustainability officer at United Technologies and an SU alumnus, said the study “adds to a long list of reasons why green buildings are good for business and good for the environment.”

Previously, value decisions on green buildings have been based on how much energy can be saved — but only 1 percent of the true cost of running a building is energy, Mandyck said. Ninety percent of costs are for the benefits and salaries of the people working inside the building, he added.

“Not only do you get savings from the energy, but now you can boost the productivity of your workforce by having that workforce make better, smarter decisions,” Mandyck said. “I think that’s a financial benefit for any building owner.”

These levels of improved indoor air quality are also readily achievable since they don’t require the advent of new technologies, Mandyck said.

“These results suggest that even modest improvements to indoor environmental quality may have a profound impact on the decision-making performance of workers,” said Joseph Allen, lead author and director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard University, in a press release.

This has the potential to transform the entire marketplace, Mandyck said.

“Buildings can become competitive assets. If you’re in a building where people are operating in the optimal indoor environment, their cognitive function is going to improve,” Mandyck said. “You now have a competitive differentiator for yourself versus the company next door.”

Focusing on these returns can accelerate the green building movement, and that will be good for the environment, the business community and the people inside the buildings, Mandyck said.

SU’s facilities were an integral part of this groundbreaking research, said Santanam, who was responsible for operating the Total Indoor Environmental Quality (TIEQ) Laboratory at the Syracuse Center of Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems.

“Syracuse University has some advanced research facilities that are essentially critical for undertaking these types of advanced studies,” Santanam said. “This is a valuable source for SU researchers as well as researchers around the country.”

The research team is going out into real buildings for phase two of the research, Mandyck said. The researchers intend to take the laboratory results and test them in 10 existing office buildings in five different cities around the country. They hope to have results analyzed and published in a year, he said.

“The research is exciting because it found that intelligence is in the air,” Mandyck said. “To achieve the productivity all you have to do is breathe.”


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