Is Your Dumb Building Making You Dumber Too?

CC BY 2.0. The air quality in conference rooms can be problematic/ Dr. Strangelove via Flickr

Poor air quality makes for poor working conditions, and the New York Times is on it.

The New York Times asks, Is conference room air making you dumber? Veronique Greenwood writes:

Small rooms can build up heat and carbon dioxide from our breath — as well as other substances — to an extent that might surprise you. And as it happens, a small body of evidence suggests that when it comes to decision making, indoor air may matter more than we have realized.
The first arguable point in the article is the suggestion that there is a small body of evidence. In fact, there's tons of evidence, a big body of it, and understanding this issue is one of the key points of green building. TreeHugger covered some of it in our post Does your office suffer from Dumb Building Syndrome?, quoting physicist Allison Bailes:
Over the past few decades, the air in many buildings has gotten worse as we've started to make them more airtight. We also put a lot of nasty, offgassing materials in our buildings. The result is that we breathe in more VOCs, more carbon dioxide, more particulate matter. And apparently it makes us dumb. You've heard of Sick Building Syndrome, right? Now we can add another one: Dumb Building Syndrome. (Just wait till the lawyers hear about that one!) But we can avoid it with source control: Keep the bad stuff out. We can avoid it with mechanical ventilation. We can avoid it by just being smarter.
limits air quality

© LEED what's in the air?

Given that I write about how much I like dumb houses and dumb boxes and dumb cities, I was not crazy about dumb building syndrome. But I do like green building certification systems that look at what's in the air in our buildings, and set limits on them. Just look at the results from Joseph Allan's testing, comparing conventional, green, and super green buildings.

VOC effects

© Joseph Allen et al

Greenwood's article just talks about CO2 but it is more complicated than that. CO2 is a good indicator of what's going on, but Volatile Organic Compounds from the building materials matter, and from perfumes and body odour and food. She quotes Joseph Allan, who tells her that “what we saw were these striking, really quite dramatic impacts on decision-making performance, when all we did was make a few minor adjustments to the air quality in the building,” but Allan pumped a lot more into the offices than just CO2; we quoted him:

We didn't introduce chemicals into the environment that you don't typically encounter; we didn't introduce ventilation rates that are impossible to obtain. The idea was to simulate office environments that can easily be obtained. What's shocking is that you see this big effect and the effort it takes to reach it wasn't that much.

If you want to be wide awake and comfortable at your desk or in your meeting, all of these things matter. Greenwood concludes that "without a specialized sensor, you can’t realistically know how much carbon dioxide is building up while you hunker down in a small room for a long meeting."

Or, you can make sure you are working in a green building certified by LEED or WELL, which have lots of fresh filtered air, low VOCs, and constant CO2 monitoring. Just opening the door isn't enough.