The month or so between the U.S. Green Building Council’s annual Greenbuild Conference and the winter holidays is a good time to reflect on the buildings where we spend most of our time. With the onset of dark evenings and winter winds, we shift to spending even more time indoors and become aware of the critical role buildings play in protecting us from the elements. Despite our obvious human needs for warmth and light, other health-related dangers of spending long hours in sealed rooms are often harder to recognize. The high performance buildings community convened at this year’s Greenbuild to showcase new research on the effects of indoor environmental quality on health and to discuss strategies to improve occupant wellbeing and cognitive performance in the built environment.
One education session that stood out was a panel featuring Aclima’s research partners, including the U.S. General Services Administration’s Kevin Kampschroer and Brian Gilligan, and Drs. Esther Sternberg and Casey Lindberg from the University of Arizona Institute on Place and Wellbeing. Our multi-year study, Wellbuilt for Wellbeing, uses several data collection techniques (including Aclima’s environmental sensing networks) to investigate the effects of the office environment on stress and health outcomes.
While much of the analysis is still ongoing, Mr. Kampschroer noted that “stress experienced at work carries over to home.” The Wellbuilt researchers have determined that when the work environment is primarily outside of the comfort range (in terms of temperature and relative humidity, as defined by ASHRAE), study participants experienced less stress and better sleep. Unfortunately, during the research period, even the top performing spaces were often outside the comfort range and contained elevated levels of pollutants like carbon dioxide and particulate matter that can impair cognitive function and contribute to bad health outcomes.
So what can we do about our poorly performing spaces? Comfort, it would seem, should be an easy problem to solve because people can serve as relatively accurate sensors. However, for a number of reasons, this doesn’t always happen and building automation using real-time, hyperlocal data would be more efficient for time and energy. Aclima is currently developing data products that allow building operators to optimize ventilation rates without sacrificing IEQ or over-ventilating and thereby wasting energy. As Brian Gilligan of the U.S. GSA reminded us at Greenbuild, it’s important that we distinguish between energy efficiency and energy intensity, because the important metric is determining whether or not buildings are providing comfortable, healthy spaces to live and work.
“Greening” our built environment is an ever-evolving effort that depends on a combination of smart design and new technologies. Existing and repurposed buildings inherently rely more on the latter. Even the best buildings of yesterday can benefit from the more intelligent technologies of today — especially when it comes to addressing the effects of pollutants that have recently been made visible by sensors.
Today, technologies like environmental sensor networks provide data that can help even our oldest, “dumbest” buildings get “smarter.” By empowering facilities managers and real estate portfolio managers with data, we can make informed decisions so that buildings can provide more than just shelter and become places that promote health and wellbeing. Dr. Esther Sternberg of the University of Arizona reminds us that “enhancing the positive is as good or better than simply reducing the negative” — something that we should all strive to do in any spaces we can control, especially this time of year when we spend so much of our time in them.
By Scott Andrews, Aclima Buildings Engagement Lead