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The building is a differentiator to attract talent

Dr Joseph G Allen, Assistant Professor, Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, and Director, Healthy Buildings, Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment, speaks on how healthy buildings can benefit HR and other functions, in this free-ranging interview with Surendar Balakrishnan…

| | Jun 26, 2018 | 3:50 pm
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There seems to be an imbalance in the region, with palpably more importance being given to energy efficiency than good indoor air quality. How is the situation in the United States? During an earlier edition of the World IEQ Forum, you spoke of how there’s a need to increase fresh air changes in the room – and you, for one, said that perhaps ASHRAE’s minimum prescribed requirement for air changes is inadequate. From that perspective, what is the response you have been getting in the United States to your call for greater attention to indoor air quality?

Dr Joseph G Allen

I think, perception-wise, the reality is that energy is still the driver in the US, but what I’m seeing is a big shift in the conversation. I’d like to think the COGfx study has helped, along with other research, to show the economic value around healthy buildings, so we quantify the benefits of a high-performing building to the bottom line of the company, and the way you get there is you show that the higher-performing building’s impact on human productivity and on worker productivity is directly related to the performance of the business, so we see uptake in the US, in particular, when we speak to executives, because the executives get this. They sit high enough in the organisation that they can understand there might be a cost per higher ventilation rate that occurs in the facilities budget, largely. But the executives also see they could get benefits across the entire enterprise in terms of work performance, worker engagement, the ability to track great workers, the ability to retain those workers and, ultimately, when they are in your building, have them perform.

And that might show in the HR human resources’ budget, but it should show up across the entire enterprise. So, the conversations we are having with executives – and these are technology companies, big pharmaceutical companies, leaders in commercial real estate, in particular commercial real estate in New York City – there’s a lot of interest in this. Because the math is simple, when you break it down, when you talk about the 90% cost of operating your business, you are talking about the people, and you can do this analysis easily – what the costs are to improve or enhance the building relative to the gains you’re going to get with your employees.

So, the uptake has been good, mostly from the executive side. I’m hearing from, in particular, the pharma industry – they keep saying we are in a global competition for talent, and they are [seeing] building as a differentiator. They know it’s a differentiator to attract that talent, and you spend a lot of money on that talent, so how do you optimise your investment, so to speak, and they see the building as a way to do that.

Do correct me if I’m wrong, but you are also linking the quality of air in the room with quality of sleep as part of the entire study, yes?

There were two studies in the COGfx. The first one looked at ventilation, carbon dioxide and VOCs and their impact on cognitive function. It was about our ability to process information and be strategic about decision making, with relatively minor changes in the indoor environment. The second study looked at indoor environmental quality factors but also the building as a whole, and it turns out that the people who worked in these high-performing green-certified buildings actually slept better that evening. I find that really provocative, because it tells me that the building is influencing our health long after we leave it.

The building owner doesn’t just have the responsibility or impact on my life eight hours in the building; in a typical work day, it extends beyond that and, of course, the people who slept better that night, perform better the next day. More importantly, we use an objective measure of sleep. We don’t just ask people, ‘How did you sleep last night?’ We were recording actual sleep quality; it’s objectively measured.

Could you explain that?

Similar to what’s on my wrist, a Fitbit, which lets us look at how long they slept, the tossing and turning… even the phase of sleep. One of the issues that plagued some studies related to sleep. They asked about sleep, and a recall question, such as ‘How did you sleep last night?’ And we all remember things differently. There is a potential for bias in that case, whereas the way we were measuring it was an objective measure, so there was no way to manipulate that data.

Based on the findings of your study in the commercial sector, how does good IAQ influence a student’s cognitive ability?

I have a message… if you want to increase the performance of your students, you should be investing in the school building. There is a wealth of information on factors related to IEQ and student performance. In fact, last year after we released the COGfx studies, we released the nine foundations of a healthy building. We synthesised 40 years of scientific evidence on the drivers and factors that influence human health, all supported by data. In a report released one year ago in March, called ‘Schools for Health’ by the Healthy Building Program in Harvard, we have laid out all the science on how these nine foundations impact student health, thinking and performance. The way I think about this is we invest so much in our kids and their learning and we think about the curriculum, STEM, arts, student-teacher ratios and standardised tests, but very rarely do we talk about the school building – and it sounds like everywhere I speak, for sure in the United States, the building is an afterthought, and it shouldn’t be.

What are the barriers for larger uptake among schools? What is preventing the school management and leadership from embracing IEQ-related measures? Is it cost, a mixture of disbelief and cost or disbelief in the science behind it? We are trying to understand that aspect, because there seems to be a lot of inertia in the Middle East region when it comes to accepting what is scientifically available in terms of data.

I can only speak on the US, but I would say the big barrier there is cost. I don’t perceive there is a disbelief in the science – the science is very strong. I like what you are doing here. You are going ahead and rating schools. I like the idea of having an IEQ score for a school, because as a parent, I have three kids. When I moved into my town, I looked at my school and how they perform. And wouldn’t it be great if I had access to how schools perform in terms of the IEQ – it would be another factor, which parents can decide. I think we need to get this information, like the COGfx study, and even the ‘schoolsforhealth’ to the administrators and facilitators. Ultimately, I think if you engage as parents – and they see the power of a building – I think it’s a big motivator for action.

Speaking of cost, as we discussed earlier, one of the issues that crops up is that energy efficiency would be compromised if we allow for more fresh air changes. Have you been able to engage ASHRAE directly in a different type of conversation, perhaps involving the use of renewable energy, which could lower concerns about increase in emissions through more fresh air changes? Dubai is making progress with renewable energy. The Emirates recently inaugurated one of the phases of its solar park, translating to 200 MW of power, enough to power 60,000 homes. Could we countenance a near-future scenario, where clean forms of renewable energy would power even energy-intensive air conditioners?

I value what ASHRAE is doing. My approach, or the way to be effective is to partner with leading companies like UTC and bring this research to decision-makers, people who design, operate, maintain and invest in buildings. In my view, that is the quickest way to affect change and helps people’s lives. We can show the hard data that changes how people operate and talk to the people who control billions of square feet in space globally – we can get that changed. ASHRAE admittedly says it’s a minimum standard. I find it interesting that someone would challenge the fact that it is, and by name it’s not a health-based standard. ASHRAE had its own argument for decades about whether it’s an energy- or health-based standards. The latest is that they say it’s a health-based standard. I don’t think this is a true health-based standard – it’s a minimum. The science is very clear. Our studies, plus many others show that there are many benefits to higher ventilation rates. I think if you ask any researcher in the field of indoor air quality, I think you will universally get that answer – that the benefits are clear with higher ventilation rates.

So, what’s holding them back, in your view?

To me, the science is so clear – what’s holding it back is this false dichotomy that has been created that we have to have energy or health, and that can’t be the way it works. We have to have both energy conservation and health, and we can have both. Some of that through energy efficient systems in a building, and others are exactly what you talked about, an energy-efficient grid based on renewable energy, because we have to quickly move to an energy system that has zero marginal cost in terms of cost – in true economic cost but also environmental cost. If we don’t we have a bigger problem that would warp everything else we are talking about, and that is climate change.

We have to get to this space, so maybe the provocative question then is, ‘How do you design your building knowing it is going to last for 100 years, if there is no cost for energy?’ Then you can make every decision you want based on health alone. I’m not saying you’re not supposed to have energy efficiency right now, we do have to have this, but we can have both energy and health. If you’re going to tell me, ‘I’ll work in a building, where the trade-off is my health versus energy’, I’m not going to work in that building. And I think that’s where we have been for the past 20 or 30 years; it’s been this trade-off, and it can’t be the way we operate moving forward.

It’s a self-defeating trade-off, yes?

Well, it depends on who you think the winners and losers are. In that case, sure if you have energy savings you can save money; at the same time, it’s at the expense of your employees and their health, so ASHRAE has been trying to find this balance. What this research is trying to do is figure out where that sweet spot is. Clearly, we know if it’s less than, say, 20 cubic feet per metre per person, we see impact. We see benefits if you increase that ventilation rate. Our study – the COGfx study – looked at impacts. What happens if you double it from 20 to 40 cm per person. Many of the green building rating systems will give credit for enhanced ventilation. The adoption rates of those credits are not as high as they could be.

One of the situations we see is a disconnect among stakeholders. For instance, there seems to be a reluctance to engage the FM team from the onset of the conceptual stage of the design of a building, which would inform stakeholders on the aspects they need to incorporate in the building towards performance. There also seems to be a lack of collaboration among consultants, contractors and the general architectural community. They seem to be at perpetual conflict on issues that affect the performance of a building, be it energy efficiency or IEQ. Have you with your COGfx study addressed multiple stakeholders, so everyone has that knowledge and is exposed to what you have to share in terms of the benefits of healthy buildings?

I am so glad you asked that question. I agree we have to have all stakeholders engaged with this latest research. We talked about the social benefits of green energy-efficient buildings through the energy grid, and that’s important. We talk about engagement across all stakeholders and everybody gets to win. The tenant wins, the investor gets to win, because now we talk about social performance. And the municipalities and the public win, when we have these energy-efficient buildings. We have tenants, landlords, owners, it’s a win-win- win across the entire spectrum… everyone who has interest in these buildings. To me that tells us we should be able to remove all the barriers to adoption, provide wins for everybody – all stakeholders. There should be no reason why we can’t help advance this moment that helps everybody, helps people work in the building, helps people outside – it seems to be a very prudent public health strategy.

On a micro level, I have been working with designers and architects. I have been engaging with designers, engineers and architects, and that’s different, because public health didn’t always have a seat in the table in design. So that’s new in the past two years. Designers, architects, engineers, maybe some green building services experts, but public health scientists traditionally did not have a seat at the table, and now we do, and I find that has changed the conversation, because I can bring in health literature that makes a case.


Surendar Balakrishnan is the Editor of Climate Control Middle East magazine, and Co-Founder and Editorial Director of CPI Industry. He may be contacted at surendar@cpi-industry.com


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