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  • 12.20.16

Green Offices Make You Smarter At Work And Sleep Better At Night

It’s not just window dressing: A sustainably designed office means healthier, more productive employees.

Green Offices Make You Smarter At Work And Sleep Better At Night

If you’re having trouble getting work done during the day, or sleeping at night, it might be your office’s fault.

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A new study compared workers in certified “green” buildings with workers at the same company who happened to work in a non-certified building. Those in green buildings scored 26.4% higher on cognitive function tests, after controlling for job category, education, and salary. They also had sleep scores that were 6.4% higher than their coworkers in non-green buildings.

In a previous study, researchers from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health studied workers in a lab, changing key factors that vary in offices: ventilation, common chemicals found in office air, and high levels of carbon dioxide. As they shifted each of these, they found that people in “green” lab environments had cognitive scores roughly double that of those with dirtier indoor air.

After those findings in the lab, they wanted to see if the same thing happened in real offices, looking at pairs of green and non-green office buildings in Boston, D.C., Denver, Los Angeles, and San Jose.

“The goal was to go out of this really highly controlled environment into real buildings and see if we see some of the same impacts on activity in actual buildings, as opposed to just the simulated conditions,” says Piers MacNaughton, a doctoral candidate at Harvard.

Factors like the temperature or light in an office impact productivity; if it’s too hot or cold or there isn’t enough natural light, that affects work. And though most studies about circadian rhythms have focused on the sleep problems caused by too much light at night, sleep can also suffer if you don’t get enough daylight during the day.

“If you’re in poor thermal conditions, you perform worse on the day of the test,” says MacNaughton. “For lighting, we saw that lighting impacts sleep quality, and then intuitively, the participants that slept worse at night did worse on cognitive tests the next day.”

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The green buildings in the study had better natural light and better thermal comfort. But employees there scored even better on tests and sleep than those factors alone would suggest.

“It didn’t explain the full effect we saw,” he says. The researchers suggest that we should be studying buildings differently. Just as biologists now tend to look at the whole human genome rather than the impact of a single gene, maybe buildings should also be studied in a holistic way.

They call the idea “buildingomics”–the totality of factors in a building that can impact productivity and health. In a separate project, they identify nine different foundations of a healthy building, from protection from outside noise to clean water.

By quantifying productivity benefits, the research is likely to have an effect on future office design. “We really see that people are starting to build around this concept of a healthy building,” MacNaughton says. “It’s starting to motivate occupants, building owners, developers, to think about the way they operate their buildings and design their buildings.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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