Redefining value for green buildings to go farther

UTC Corporation chief sustainability officer John Mandyck explores the link between green buildings and better productivity.

cogfx study
A research participant in the "The Impact of Green Buildings on Cognitive Function" study carried out by US researchers. The study tested the link between indoor environment conditions and cognitive performance. Image: TheCOGfx Study

The story of the green building movement begins over 20 years ago. When the movement started, green buildings were seen as the sustainable solution for a rapidly urbanizing world with tremendous environmental benefits – conserving natural resources, minimizing environmental impacts and improving the indoor environment.

The movement shows no sign of slowing, with a recently released report by Dodge Data & Analytics indicating that the rate of global green building continues to double every three years. Respondents – 1,000 building professionals from more than 60 countries — projected that more than 60 per cent of their projects would be green projects by 2018.

And compared to past surveys, fewer respondents believe green building is accelerating simply because it’s “the right thing to do.” Instead, clients are demanding green. This shows that the industry increasingly sees the tangible value in green buildings.

It’s strong, measurable progress. However, we typically measure value in green buildings by energy saved. That will always be important, but according to a report by Terrapin Bright Green, the cost of energy takes up less than 1 per cent of a building’s true operating costs; 90 per cent of the costs associated with a building come from the people inside it, with salaries and benefits.

On top of that, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, we spend 90 per cent of our time indoors.

We’ve come so far chasing the 1 per cent; imagine how far we can go when we chase the 90 per cent. This is where the story of green buildings can evolve. When we tell the story about the value of green buildings, we should consider them as stories about people – not just buildings. And thanks to a new study, we can tell that story.

The Impact of Green Buildings on Cognitive Function,” also known as The COGfx Study was conducted in the fall of 2014 and published in October 2015. The study was conducted 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 funding from United Technologies and its UTC Climate, Controls & Security business.

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

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

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, which has been administered more than 70,000 times over the last four decades.

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. 

This groundbreaking new research found that improved indoor environmental quality doubled participants’ cognitive function test scores. On average, cognitive scores were:

  • 61 per cent higher in green building conditions
  • 101 per cent higher in green building conditions with enhanced ventilation

The study found that cognitive function scores were better in green building conditions compared to the conventional building conditions across all functional domains, with the largest improvements in crisis response, strategy, and information usage. In the green building environment with enhanced ventilation:

  • Crisis response scores were 131 per cent higher.
  • Information usage scores were 299 per cent higher.
  • For strategy, scores were 288 per cent higher than the conventional environment.

These results suggest that intelligence is in the air – 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.

The payback for improved indoor environmental quality far outweighs the investment, considering that more than 90 per cent of the costs associated with a building are related to the people who work within it. And, unlike many productivity measures that require a learning curve, all someone has to do is breathe.

We think these results have the potential to change everything for how we think about buildings. This study also has the potential to further accelerate the green building movement beyond its known and equally important benefits of energy efficiency and water conservation. As the results show, better buildings result in better thinking and improved productivity.

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 full report is available at

John Mandyck is chief sustainability officer for United Technologies Corporation. This post was written exclusively for Eco-Business.

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