Breaking: Harvard/Syracuse scientists say more bad stuff in the air is bad!

I finally got around to reading the Harvard/Syracuse paper recently published about the impact of VOC and CO2 concentrations on cognitive function in office buildings, and the results certainly justify the attention this study is receiving. You can read the study here, and the Fast Company article on it here.

Of course it is intuitively true that more bad stuff in the air is bad, but it is interesting that it has taken this long for research specifically on the office environment to quantify the impact in business relevant terms. We have all known that IEQ is business relevant and impacts the bottom line, because we have all experienced working environments where we felt unproductive but couldn’t explain why. Now we are finally getting some data to support the supposition! It’s great that these direct connections are being highlighted, and it’s even better that these connections are going to bring about a very tough question when it comes to buildings and energy efficiency. Namely, what are you getting out of your building for the amount of energy you put in?


It turns out that where work happens has an impact on the quality of the work, so naturally this will lead any rational business owner to take a good look at the quality of their work space. After all, they are paying for it, so what, exactly, are they getting? Does Class A rent in Class A office space mean Class A indoor environment. What is Class A indoor environment? What exactly are they getting for their money?

In the context of energy efficiency, this question is extremely powerful. We spend lots of time thinking about reducing energy use and water use in big buildings, but we don’t often consider what that energy is being used for. We talk about energy use in kWh and BTUs, but these are just the inputs into the building as a system, but the output is the indoor environment itself.

Energy efficiency is often talked about in energy use per area or square foot, but that’s not really energy efficiency. Real energy efficiency would be input divided by output. The EUI (energy use intensity calculated in energy per square foot or meter) is a dumb metric, as is openly acknowledged. We don’t actually care about EUI; we care what the total energy use for environmental and financial reasons. We should also care about the output, but we could never really define it. We did our best, in terms of thermal comfort and humidity and temperature, but we knew we were missing the effect of air movement, noise, odors, that annoying guy in the cube next door, etc.

Combine the conclusion of this study with much more advanced and cheaper sensors hitting the market that can measure things like VOCs and particulates, and perhaps can we try to understand the output side of the equation. You spent how many kilowatt hours of electricity to get what? Is that a lot or a little? Was there a better way to provide that same level of output with less energy input? Should you actually use more energy to improve the output of your system?
Actual efficiency is a measure of input compared to output. I’m not suggesting that more metrics and more performance outcomes are going to lead to less energy use, but at least we will have a better idea of where that energy use is going and to what end. We’ll have to figure out if it is worth it later on…