Environment Column

Green buildings are more effective for you than coffee, and other takeaways from Wednesday’s Center of Excellence presentation

The average American spends more than 90 percent of his or her time indoors, even though people are known to be happier when they are outside. This means we’re constantly breathing in air pollutants — things as simple as dust, but also more dangerous pollutants such as chemical vapors, mold and viruses — and thus we’re more likely to feel worse than better.

So why do people open up a window to let in fresh air? The reason is simple: to breathe better.

Green buildings mimic this phenomenon, which inspired researchers from Syracuse University, the State University of New York Upstate Medical University and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to look into the relationship between indoor environmental air quality and cognitive function. On Wednesday, three of those researchers presented their most recent findings at the Syracuse Center of Excellence.

The researchers’ work became known as the COGfx study. By using SU’s own Syracuse Center of Excellence headquarters as a test lab, the initial project concluded that the better people can breathe, the better they can think.

But contrarians argue this relationship between breathing and thinking isn’t the result of a building being green, but rather a building that’s more efficient. This notion helped shape the second COGfx study, which compared high-performing non-certified buildings against high-performing green-certified building unlike the first study, which only compared conventional buildings. By the study’s end, air quality wasn’t the only measurable difference to occupants: comfort and lighting also played larger roles.

Joseph Allen and Piers MacNaughton of Harvard and Usha Satish of SUNY Upstate discussed their latest findings at the Center of Excellence’s monthly Research and Technology Forum. Here are three major takeaway points from their presentation on the study — and more reasons as to why green buildings are great investments:


1. Green buildings are better than coffee

The core of this study is based off scientific findings that people focus better in green buildings. Occupants of enhanced green environments were able to strategize better, respond faster, appear more focused and manage tasks more efficiently. All the different data points boil down to a general cognitive improvement of 26 percent, compared to those working in non-certified buildings.

This may not seem like a large percentage, but compared to buildings that are also operating at similar functionalities, it’s a positive nod to green architecture. It reveals that individual thermal comfort and controllable lighting fixtures are just as important to helping people focus as good air.


2. You’ll feel better in green buildings

The benefits of a green building last long after you’ve left. An increased exposure to sunlight through great views and open windows — which make people feel as if they’re outside — boosts melanin production, resulting in a 25 percent higher sleep score.

John Mandyck, the chief sustainability officer at United Technologies Corporation who introduced the presentation, said he thinks these results are the missing piece of what he calls the green building trifecta. Green buildings look good, but now the COGfx studies can show how much of an impact these buildings have on actual tenets once they operate in a real-world situation as opposed to a simulated one.

And if you think about it, the main reason people get sick so often on campus is because everyone is sharing the same small spaces, like dorm rooms. The study also found that 30 percent of green building occupants reported fewer sick symptoms, meaning people’s overall health improved.


3. Green buildings are attracting the big bucks

When it comes down to business, $7.6 trillion has been invested into green infrastructure construction and technology so far, Mandyck said. That’s a lot. And green buildings are growing in popularity. On SU’s campus, every new building has to have some form of green certification, which usually falls into the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) category.

The latest university construction project, Dineen Hall for the College of Law, received a gold certification, which is the second-highest LEED certification. The return on investment in these types of buildings isn’t so shabby, either. The U.S. Green Building Council states owners of green buildings find that their return on investment jumps 19.2 percent.

So not only do green buildings make sense, people also like them – who isn’t drawn to an open floor plan with large windows and circulating air flow? If you feel good in a building, you’re more likely to stay and maybe even study harder. If you can think better, you might even perform better on exams. So why wouldn’t SU and the city of Syracuse not want to invest further in a more sustainable way of living?

Just like how being outside usually improves people’s moods, green buildings provide a happiness boost. Few things are better than that.

Morgan Bulman is a graduate student studying magazine, newspaper and online journalism. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at mebulman@syr.edu and followed on Twitter @morgbulman.


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