Stuffy Office?

Keep the air and ideas fresh by avoiding prolonged meetings and enclosed workspaces.

"I can't think...I need some air!"

This common phrase is more accurate than you might expect. While we usually use “I’m getting some air” as code for “taking a break,” there is a physiological reason why we need to do this. As carbon dioxide (CO2) levels build up in an enclosed environment, it impairs our ability to think clearly. Have you ever been in a stuffy conference room and felt as though no one can make a decision? It is most likely something in the air. As we speak and exhale, we contribute natural CO2 to the spaces we inhabit. If the ventilation systems in those spaces do not properly filter the CO2 laden air in the room with enough fresh air, it can affect our ability to think and make decisions.

A 2015 study showed performance across nine cognitive functions increased on average 101 percent in environments that had high rates of ventilation over conventional environments. The higher performing environments used increased ventilation rates to remove volatile organic compounds (VOC) and CO2 from the environment. For specific measurements on information usage, strategy and key decision-making functions, results were higher by 299 percent and 288 percent, respectively. The correlation between exposure to CO2 and VOCs and cognitive performance is clear. As Dr. Joseph Allen, principal investigator for the study concluded, “This study suggests that indoor environments can have a profound impact on the decision-making performance of workers, which is a primary indicator of worker productivity. These results … suggest that the levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds that we commonly encounter in conventional office buildings are associated with decreases in worker performance compared to when those same workers are in green building environments [and that] when we enhance ventilation and optimize indoor environmental conditions, we see improvements in the cognitive function of workers…”

Increased ventilation and lower CO2 and VOC levels helps employees stay focused and think clearly. (Source: Corgan)

So, what does this mean for us?

Studies like this draw strong conclusions about the impact of the built environment on occupant health. We spend 90 percent of our time inside enclosed interior environments and most of the cost of a business is on the people in the buildings they occupy. There is a great opportunity to improve the health and cognitive function of building occupants and improve the performance of the employees at the same time. Corgan is leading the way with balanced healthy building design concepts that properly ventilate office spaces to ensure clear productive thinking. Below are some of the tools that are used to employ healthy building design and improve indoor air quality:


1. Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV)

Drawing higher volumes of air out of a building and exchanging with higher volumes of fresh (outside) air is an important step, one that removes airborne toxins from those environments, thereby improving occupant health and saving energy cost. By deploying Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV) systems, buildings can increase ventilation and consume less energy than in conventional systems.

2. VOC Limitation

The best way to reduce exposure to volatile organic compounds is to remove them from the interior environment. By choosing materials with low VOCs, we can improve indoor air quality and improve occupant health and performance.

3. Measure, Monitor and Correct

HVAC (Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems equipped with CO2 sensors can cause variable air volume systems to increase the air exchanges in a space, thereby reducing the CO2 in the air. Even if a full retrofit is not feasible for a particular space, tabletop CO2 monitors can alert occupants in the room that CO2 levels are elevated and that it may be time to open the doors and take a break.

4. Go Green

In addition to the “green building” strategies that improve indoor air quality and occupant health, introducing actual greenery into a space has health benefits as well. Plants naturally absorb CO2 and produce oxygen, which benefits the indoor air quality of a space. Some plants remove more harmful toxins from the air, and while providing visual delight, can offer additional health benefits associated with improved air quality.


Clean Air on the Horizon

After designing over 50 million square feet of workplace interiors in the past five years including the first WELL Certified building in Texas, Corgan is empowering clients with the research and expertise they need to prepare for the next generation of healthy, more human buildings. With employees spending 90% of their time indoors, Corgan and WELL help clients identify common shortcomings and practical, budget-friendly interventions to care for their building’s biggest asset—the people inside.

About the Author

David Euscher, RID, ASID, IIDA, LEED AP
Vice President and Interiors Studio Leader

As a designer of the built environment, David is driven to improve the well-being of the people served by the spaces he designs. David brings a passionate curiosity to his work fueled by a fascination with the interrelationship between culture, data and design. Throughout his 25-year career, David has designed and led interior architecture projects for corporate commercial, multi-family, hospitality, industrial, academic, retail, healthcare and workplace clients and has been responsible for projects from pre-design to successful completion. Connect with David.

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