Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Bill Roth headshot

Study: Buildings With Cleaner Air Make You Smarter

By Bill Roth

A study just published by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has linked a building’s indoor air quality directly to its occupants' cognitive function. Cognitive function is defined as the cerebral activities that lead to knowledge including acquiring information, reasoning, attention, memory and language.

The revolutionary finding of this study is that lowering indoor air levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) improves human cognitive function. In other words: Cleaner air makes us smarter!

This amplifies the issue of CO2 as a pollutant to a new level. It brings the issue inside our homes, offices and schools. It creates a significant motivation to reduce indoor air pollution by reducing CO2 and VOC levels.

Impacts on competitive advantage, building owners, lawyers and smartphones

To this economist focused on 21st-century mega trends this study shouts out business and societal questions around “competitive advantage.” It suggest that a business with superior indoor air quality will have higher performing work associates. It suggests that a business with superior indoor air quality will be more effective in messaging, and winning, customers.

The study presents a radically new real estate value proposition. It suggests that buildings with superior indoor air quality will sell for more money and win higher leasing levels.

Indoor air quality could become a major educational issue with societal ramifications. It raises questions about student performance (with issues of inequality) based on a school’s indoor air quality and proximity to sources of CO2 like highways, factories and power plants.

Based on this study, the role that CO2 has in driving climate change may be only half of the environmental cost/benefit analysis tied to CO2 emissions. A recognition that indoor CO2 levels have a measurable human cognitive function impact should spark massive building code revisions.

It would also appear to be only a matter of time before poor indoor air quality soars to a top-of-mind issue among lawyers with the likely emergence of class action litigation against building owners and property managers. And it suggests a future killer app for smartphones or wearables that continuously monitors indoor air quality to protect us from working or living in a home, factory, office or hotel with poor indoor air quality.

Smart vs. green buildings

A stated motivation for conducting this study was to access the growing number of green buildings that achieved increased energy efficiency by wrapping a building to minimize conditioned air (and energy) loss. These tightly-sealed buildings were thought to represent “sick building syndrome,” where occupants felt impacted by poor indoor air quality.

The study found that, in fact, poor ventilation in tightly-sealed buildings does create a human health threat. The finding holds the potential to shift building design and operations away from “green” buildings and toward “smart” building designs like those adopted into California’s building codes that incorporate ventilation solutions with building sensors, smart technologies and onsite renewable generation to achieve Zero Net Energy annual results.

How indoor air quality could impact real estate values

Who wants to work, stay or live in a building that makes them dumber? How that question is answered during the 21st century could make CO2 and VOC levels a major determinate in real estate sales.

Future real estate disclosure could include measured quantification of a building's indoor air quality. The ability to finance a building or home, including the cost of financing, could be impacted by a building’s potential air quality impacts on occupants. In the future home prices and sales could be impacted by how a potential homebuyer’s smartphone or wearable measures the house's indoor air quality during a walking tour.

Smart buildings will cost less, mean more and makes us smarter

Smart buildings are a 21st-century mega trend. They will cost less because they will use onsite solar energy systems that are projected to deliver grid parity, or lower prices, in all states by next year. Smart buildings will achieve lower costs by deploying battery systems, which are projected to reach grid price parity in five years, to enable price arbitrage against utility rates plus enhanced service reliability. They will cost less because smart technologies will optimize energy and water consumption around human behavior and comfort. They will cost less because they create less risk, litigation and human compliant.

Smart buildings will mean more for two reasons. The first is tied to the human experience: They will enhance human productivity and satisfaction with their seamless connectivity to human activity. A recent survey found that people want their smart home or office to be easy to use and experience. Smart tech will be bundled, connected and intuitive. Smart tech will anticipate human need (like sensing two people walking into a room and automatically turning on the appropriate level of lighting and conditioned air ventilation). The smart home or building will be secure and protected against misuse through easy-to-implement human interaction like a voice command or the touch of a finger.

The second reason they will mean more is tied to their ability to protect/enhance human and environmental health. Smart buildings will have reduced environmental emissions. They will monitor air quality around human health parameters. They will be a major contributor toward the mitigation of climate change.

Smart buildings will reshape the 21st-century economy, improve our environment, enhance human health and make us smarter from just breathing cleaner air.

Image credit: Pixabay

Bill Roth headshot

Bill Roth is a cleantech business pioneer having led teams that developed the first hydrogen fueled Prius and a utility scale, non-thermal solar power plant. Using his CEO and senior officer experiences, Roth has coached hundreds of CEOs and business owners on how to develop and implement projects that win customers and cut costs while reducing environmental impacts. As a professional economist, Roth has written numerous books including his best selling The Secret Green Sauce (available on Amazon) that profiles proven sustainable best practices in pricing, marketing and operations. His most recent book, The Boomer Generation Diet (available on Amazon) profiles his humorous personal story on how he used sustainable best practices to lose 40 pounds and still enjoy Happy Hour!

Read more stories by Bill Roth