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Sally Lloyd

Green, clean air to boost brain power

Sally Lloyd says green buildings can benefit the productivity of its occupants

Posted by Stephanie Broad | March 20, 2016 | Sustainability

The case for constructing green buildings gets stronger and stronger. A number of positive reasons to do so have long been established: the conservation of natural resources, an improved indoor environment and the cost-savings achieved through a more efficient use of energy.

But now, it is time to realise a lesser-known benefit of green buildings – occupant productivity. It is perhaps in schools where this will really come to the fore.

It is my opinion that any new construction should be built with BREEAM guidance in mind. Likewise with renovations. In the case of schools, adhering to this sustainable guidance is a condition for attaining capital funding to help finance any building work. But the benefits stretch way beyond monetary incentives.

Two of the main factors that contribute to the BREEAM way of building are ventilation and indoor air quality (IAQ). Architects, building services teams and their clients should be placing a renewed emphasis on the importance of this because, in schools in particular, they are the two elements that arguably have the biggest impact on a school’s foremost objective – ensuring the best possible educational experience for their students.

Research out of Harvard

Up until recently, justifying ‘productivity’ as a legitimate reason to invest in green buildings has been difficult because it is so difficult to accurately measure.

However, a recent study conducted by researchers at Harvard University in the USA reveals that in sustainable environments with enhanced ventilation, employees’ cognitive performance scores averaged 101% higher when compared to a conventional building environment. Make the assumption that this trend transfers in at least equal measure to the school environment and it is plain to see that prioritising sustainable ventilation solutions in education is a no-brainer.

The primary variable of the study was the level of CO₂ that the participants were exposed to as they carried out a number of simulated day-to-day tasks. These included basic and focused activity levels, task orientation, crisis response, information seeking, information usage and strategy. Two of the largest improvements in the cognitive function test scores were in information usage and strategy.

At school, when a child’s mind is still developing, maximising their capability to perform in these areas will stand them in good stead throughout the entirety of their lives.

That is why ensuring that CO₂ levels in classrooms does not exceed the optimal amount – and why finding a solution to prevent it is so important.

A lesson in bad ventilation  

Many school buildings in operation in the UK today are relics of a bygone age where building designers were challenged with lowering energy costs. However without the technologies we are afforded today, their strategy was focused around constructing airtight spaces to restrict a waste of energy.

But while this method succeeded in making buildings less wasteful, the negative consequences to indoor environment are – with hindsight – significantly detrimental to air quality. With a reduction in airflow comes an increased concentration of indoor pollutants such as CO₂.

Until now, studies of the impact of green buildings and CO₂ levels on cognitive function have been somewhat subjective. As more scientifically driven studies such as the one carried out at Harvard University, it will become difficult to consider anything but a sustainable approach to building.

Increased exposure to CO₂ leads to a reduction in cognitive performance. A reduction in cognitive performance leads to a difficulty concentrating. Poor concentration equals poor performance and lower grades. It is a simple formula, but we are now in a position whereby we have available technologies that can keep energy usage down whilst dramatically improving the indoor environment.

Demand-controlled ventilation

Perhaps the most intelligent technology we possess to monitor CO₂ levels is demand-controlled ventilation (DCV). The solution works through the use of CO₂ sensors that constantly monitor indoor air quality on a room-by-room basis. Then, when the system detects that CO₂ levels are too high, it automatically introduces a flow of fresh outside air into the room while filtering out the stale, contaminated air – retaining the balance and keeping students focused.

Taking cognitive care

Investment in BREEAM-friendly ventilation solutions such as DCV should never be shunned due to perceptions of high-costs. They are, in fact, entirely affordable.

Ultimately, think of the future return on investment from a ‘productivity’ point of view. If a school’s grade performance improves as a result of its students being educated in an optimal indoor environment, then it will no doubt become a more desirable establishment to attend. The reputational gains a school can achieve should not be understated.

Where are parents most likely to send their children to be educated, given the choice? The healthiest environment. The environment that maximises their learning potential. The school which demonstrates a commitment to student care that goes above and beyond current convention.

Sally Lloyd is Marketing Manager at Jaga Heating Products UK

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