In 1828, humble clockmaker John Harding invented the first chronometer, an
incredibly well-crafted timepiece that could accurately measure longitude. His
ingenuity and hard work sparked decades of future research and made sea voyages
safer. Today, in a Maryland school district, a major study is under way to measure
health, energy, and productivity in schools. Hopefully, this work - the culmination
of years of effort - will lead to healthier, more energy-efficient educational
"Increasingly we are aware that the quality of the air, the quality of
the total environment … that people are in has a lot to do with how productive
they are. But we are not sure exactly how this works," says David Mudarri,
senior analyst at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington,
D.C. From volatile organic compounds in the air to humidity levels to dust particles:
How do all these components impact occupant health and performance? By defining
the link between productivity and the built environment, the outcome of this
research has far-reaching ramifications.
HP-Woods Research Institute, Herndon, VA, is conducting the research project.
In the past, the majority of studies on productivity in the commercial environment
were based on anecdotal information or theoretical models. Moreover, there have
not been many studies that examined the direct linkage between productivity
and the school environment.
"Because of the measurement assessment that you could do with children,
early on we focused on taking measures of elementary school children,"
says Jim Woods, president, HP-Woods Research Institute. The concept behind the
study has been in development for many years. In 1997, after his retirement
as a university professor, Woods rethought the research concept and devised
a study with his colleagues that would measure human response, occupant performance,
and productivity separately.
According to Woods, human response would be measures of illness, discomfort,
acceptability, or perception of the environment. Conversely, occupant performance
would measure learning outcome, including teachers' observations of performance,
test scores, and record cards. It is influenced by human response and individual
motivation. "You can have an environment that is very good, but the teacher
motivation is low or student motivation is low; then, the learning outcome will
be poor," says Woods.
Woods defines productivity as a measure of the value of the improved performance
compared to the costs of achieving that change in performance. For example,
a significant improvement in test scores caused by enhanced, yet expensive,
environmental controls would result in poor productivity. On the other hand,
a minimal improvement in test scores in a highly energy-efficient environment
that operates cheaper than average would result in a dramatic productivity rise.
"The value of enhanced performance has to have a dollar value and that
has to be considered from the local community's viewpoint," explains Woods.
The study has two objectives: first, to establish data that quantifies the relationship
between productivity, health, human responses, and occupant performance; and
second, to spread this data so that school administrators would be able to make
informed decisions when managing schools.
This longitudinal study is taking place over three years. The first year was
devoted to acquiring baseline data. This year is dedicated to performing interventions.
In the study's final year, researchers will take measurements. The study focuses
on student performance (such as grades and test scores) and health statistics
(such as attendance records). Researchers are following three groups of children
through the third and fourth grades in six schools in two demographic areas.
Two of the schools in each demographic area will receive interventions, while
one school in each area will serve as the control group.
Interventions related only to indoor air quality (IAQ) - such as adjusting
ventilation rates - will be conducted at two schools, while overall improvements
to indoor air quality, maintenance procedures, lighting, thermal settings, and
acoustics will be done at the two other schools. All of these interventions
fall within normal school budget parameters. "That put another constraint
on the research; it has to be very practical. The kinds of interventions implemented
must be those that a school district really could afford to do," says Woods.
Researchers have established a set of evaluation criteria with three categories,
and a set of classification criteria with eight classifications. The three categories
are problematic (P), marginal (M), and healthy (H).
In the problematic category, for example, a P1 classification is an unhealthy
building with explicit evidence of illness in end-users. In a P2 classification
building, there is no evidence of end-users' illness, but there is evidence
of symptoms associated with Sick Building Syndrome. A P3 building has no evidence
of illness or symptoms, but includes complaints from end-users.
The M1 class is for facilities that are in non-compliance with exposure values.
If all interior elements, such as thermal, lighting, indoor air quality, and
acoustics, fall within the proper parameters but the overall building system
is not in compliance, the building is a M2 class. M3 buildings meet the institute's
energy-efficiency and life-cycle cost criteria.
If a building meets all of the previous classes, it falls into the healthy
category. An H1 facility is a healthy, transparent environment - meaning occupants
are not paying attention to the environment and are focused on their tasks.
An H2 facility would be a healthy enhanced environment, a cost-effective facility
that improves occupant performance - and the type of building the researchers
hope to eventually create.
In cooperation with the parents, teachers, and school administrators, the institute
began acquiring data last September. Interventions to improve the educational
environment will take place this summer. All of the interventions will be commissioned
to make sure changes achieve the desired change in system performance. After
the changes are completed, post-intervention data will be collected to determine
if the changes impact occupant performance. In 2003, the data analyses will
Approximately 700 students are being tracked over this three-year period. However,
the results will have a tremendous impact on a far greater number of children
and will change the way facilities and design professionals create high-performance
educational facilities. Funding for the study has come from a large group of
federal and private organizations, including the Department of Energy, the EPA,
the Department of Education, the Arlington, VA-based Air Conditioning and Refrigeration
Technology Institute (ARTI), the National Energy Management Institute, the National
Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), the North American Insulation Manufacturers
Association, with in-kind services from the National Institute of Health (NIH)
and the National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST).
This study is being done at the peer review level. "This is a huge paradigm
shift. We in the building sector are not used to doing big science," says
Woods. After this study is completed, Woods is considering a national study
to generalize this concept to other school districts. "Bottom-line is if
a school superintendent has $100,000 to invest, would it be better in roofing,
improving the HVAC system, or hiring new teachers? What factors does a superintendent
have to allow an objective decision?" asks Woods.
Woods is also interested in performing a similar study in office buildings.
Although there have been a host of studies, very few of them rely on original
data or measure all of the factors covered in this study. "It's hard, very
hard; it takes a big commitment and someone foolish enough to try it,"
The rise in commercial buildings being labeled as unhealthy reveals the need
for this type of research. Sick Building Syndrome is a nebulous term, relating
to poor ventilation, poor maintenance, and a host of other facilities problems.
Currently, it is unclear how the commercial environment impacts the end-user.
"[Individuals'] mental processes may be degraded directly as a result of
indoor air quality. Or the indoor air quality issue may work through some other
effect, such as causing a headache that impacts mental ability," said Mudarri.
For a long time, facilities professionals and researchers have struggled with
the problem of accurately measuring productivity; rather, over the past 15 years,
researchers have focused on the link between indoor air quality issues, such
as mold, and discomfort and health problems. "Mold has become very popular,"
jokes Mudarri. Recently, school environments have come under greater scrutiny,
and standardized tests offer an excellent opportunity to measure occupant performance.
The research and interest in productivity has come full circle. "In the
late 1970s when the energy crisis hit the country, people did a lot of foolish
things in buildings and made people ill," says Mudarri. Now, there is a
renewed interest in energy efficiency - this time with a focus on indoor air
quality and the liability risk from Sick Building Syndrome. Adds Mudarri, "Building
owners are responding because it is going to affect their bottom-line."
Facilities management, especially in educational buildings, is being given
more consideration. "There has been a lot of focus on education programs
and techniques, but the building itself speaks a lot to the students,"
says Mudarri. Acoustical problems, lighting quality, and indoor air quality
in facilities suffering from deferred maintenance have an impact on students,
according to Mudarri. Increasingly, communities and school administrators are
faced with correcting years of neglect.
Madison, WI-based Farnsworth Group, a market transformation consulting firm,
has done three studies for the National Energy Management Institute (NEMI).
Two of the studies were broad-based, covering schools, hospitals, and office
buildings; the third report focused on the hospitality industry, hotels, casinos,
and restaurants. By analyzing other studies completed in the last decade, the
firm was able to develop estimates of the productivity impact due to poor IAQ.
Their studies estimate an average impact of 3 percent in productivity across
the nation: A healthy building would have 1 percent of productivity loss, while
a facility suffering from Sick Building Syndrome was at 6 percent. "We
could calculate the cost value of productivity across the nation. It came out
to around $12 billion a year," says Chad Dorgan, senior project engineer
at Farnsworth Group. Facilities changes to improve indoor air quality paid for
themselves, on average, from nine months to a year-and-a-half, according to
Dorgan is also doing studies on improvements in HVAC systems and student performance,
and the positive link between maintenance and overall IAQ in office buildings.
Dorgan notes, "Look at the rise in asthma rates in children; parents have
become more aware that this isn't a fluke. We have to respond as an industry
to make sure we are designing the best systems we can."
The study by the HP-Woods Institute promises to deliver concrete data on the
value of enhanced environments in schools, as well as other commercial facilities.
This research marks an exciting new chapter of knowledge on the importance of
the built environment.
Regina Raiford (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is senior editor at Buildings magazine.