Study shows green buildings may be healthy buildings

May 13, 2017

Of all the factors that influence our well-being, our environment itself is one often overlooked. We consider exercise and nutrition, sleep and stress -- but new research suggests that an optimal, “green” environment may be more influential than previously understood, increasing both productivity and overall health in the workplace and beyond.

To learn more about the latest in green environments, “Take Care” was joined by Piers MacNaughton, associate director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard Center for Health and Global Environment. MacNaughton recently managed a study on environmental influences in the hopes of determining what an “optimal built environment” looks like.

In the study, he explains, participants were at work in a seemingly normal office, while from the floor below, researchers controlled factors including air circulation, temperature, and carbon dioxide levels. And the results, MacNaughton says, were quite revealing.

When participants worked in a space representative of a “green” environment, they scored 61 percent higher on the cognitive test than when they were in a conventional environment. And in fact, when ventilation in the office was increased, the cognitive function scores doubled.

Through their research, MacNaughton and his team were able to identify nine foundations of a healthy, “green” building. So, what exactly constitutes “green?”

Primarily, MacNaughton notes, energy efficiency is considered. But some of the factors that influence our health and productivity include temperature, noise levels, ventilation, and chemicals in the air, among other things.

Lighting, for example, proved to be a direct influence on the participants. Not only can views of the outdoors reduce stress and increase productivity, but the study found that those who worked closer to windows slept better at night. According to MacNaughton, higher contrast between your daytime and evening light exposure trains your circadian rhythm and regulates the hormones that control sleep cycles.

The research is clear, he says, and it is now imperative for designers and architects to consider environmental factors when developing their buildings. Although the technology may be more costly to implement, MacNaughton stresses that it is worth the return on investment. And what’s more – the property value only increases by providing an environment that improves cognitive function and productivity, he says.

The center’s goal, he adds, is to share their findings with the public so people will consider how their environment is affecting their performance and overall well-being, and further, to make green buildings a reality everywhere.