Photo courtesy of Ivan

How my experience in an empty WeWork building during a "Very Unhealthy" air quality crisis highlights the connection between IAQ and productive building environments.

The tragic Camp wildfire burst off of the news and, in effect, into every nook and cranny of buildings in the Bay Area when its smoke blanketed the region on Friday, November 9th.

A week later and San Francisco’s air quality index for PM2.5 hit 228. Over 150 and “everyone may begin to experience health effects.” Over 200 and the NFL looks to reschedules games, WeWork sends its employees home, and folks stop asking Alexa about the weather and, instead, ask about the air.1 The World Health Organization has a standard for PM2.5, over a 24 hour period, of 25. Last week the rating peaked at 1,500.

Bay Area Air Quality and the impact on commercial office productivity.

Data from the EPA’s airnow.gov. Dark purple–Hazardous, purple–Very Unhealthy, red–Unhealthy.

Harvard’s Indoor Air Quality study

What is the link between healthy indoor air quality and building occupant productivity? Harvard’s double-blind study has the data. In this research, 24 professional-grade employees completed a battery of cognition assessments under varying indoor air quality conditions.

The cognitive performance tests included Information Usage, Strategy, and Crisis Response (as in role-playing the decisions faced by a township’s mayor during an emergency). IAQ was set at both low and high VOC levels, with ventilation set to ASHRAE standards of 20 cfm per person (days with twice the ventilation rates were also tested).2

The link between indoor air quality and worker productivity is strong

Average cognitive function scores and standard error bars by domain for the Conventional, Green, and two Green+ conditions, normalized to the Green condition by dividing all scores by the average score during the Green condition.

Overall, cognitive performance is 61% higher in a low-VOC environment and is 101% higher when the same high quality air is ventilated at twice the ASHRAE rate. Fewer aldehydes, better decisions.

While building operators don’t doubt the importance of air quality to building occupants, this Harvard study adds ground truth data to the trend in linking IAQ with boosts in productivity.3

Indoor air quality is emerging as one of the ‘new opportunities’ for smart building technology. Improving IAQ delivers a better environment – workers are more productive, residents are healthier – and this results in a more desirable space that will rent and sell for a premium. The open question is how this will be quantified in business cases for new solution purchases – the payback will continue to be compelling, but may not be clear or direct. As more IAQ technology is deployed, we likely will have more visibility into the specific benefits. – Joseph Aamidor, Aamidor Consulting

Productive buildings have people in them

California has run a version of the Harvard test, though unintentionally and under tragic circumstances.

Filtrete filter and a 20in box fans improves indoor air quality

A friend’s idea in Thailand led me to macgyver this indoor air purifier–a 20 inch box fan and a HEPA/Filtrete filter, shown here after 48 hours of operation.

Last week, with smoke covering the Bay Area, companies started passing out smoke masks and last Friday, when the air got amazingly bad, this author’s WeWork building was empty as tech firms told their employees to stay home.4

For those readers not in California, don’t let pictures of folks with smoke masks on the sidewalks leave you thinking of chicken little. While the ventilated building stairwell may smell like a 4th of July BBQ, the taste it leaves in the back of your throat isn’t Crystal hot sauce.

Hardware store doors are another indication of the situation, with signs hastily hung up stating “No more masks, maybe Monday :(” and “No HEPA filters remaining.”

This air filter rig made bearable an otherwise blisteringly bleak week in the Bay. And with the speed turned up to 3, its droning serves as constant reminder on the importance of our breathable air.

About Millen Paschich

Millen has been thinking about the built environment since he was four, when he started with site walks on residential construction projects. He began his career at Cambridge Associates and has an MBA from UCLA. Talk to him about bicycling, buildings, businesses, and green chile burritos!

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