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Nov. 15, 2001
Unlocking the mysteries of productivity, air quality, and the indoor environment in schools

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 environments.

"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 be finalized.

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," he jokes.

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.

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 ([email protected]) is senior editor at Buildings magazine.

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