Breathe Easier and Work Better in Today’s Energy Efficient Buildings

Nov. 25, 2015
Remember when energy efficient buildings were too tight and caused respiratory problems? Today just the opposite is true. Energy efficiency and better ventilation — at a lower cost — now can go hand and hand, according to a new study.

Remember when energy efficient buildings were too tight and caused respiratory problems? Today just the opposite is true. Energy efficiency and better ventilation — at a lower cost — now can go hand and hand, according to a new study.

Economic, Environmental and Health Implications of Enhanced Ventilation in Office Buildings finds that it’s possible to double the ventilation rate in typical office buildings at an estimated annual energy cost of between $14 and $40 per person. The result is as much as a $6,500 equivalent in improved productivity per person per year, researchers said.

Incorporating energy-efficient technologies drove down costs even more, according to the research by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, SUNY Upstate Medical, Syracuse University and Carrier.

“This study shows there is no longer a tradeoff between energy efficiency and indoor environmental quality – both can be achieved together to accelerate the green building movement,” said John Mandyck, UTC chief sustainability officer. “Readily available, energy efficient technology can turn office buildings into human resource tools that improve the health and productivity of the people inside.”

Researchers studied three indoor environments created by four different heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system strategies across seven U.S. cities.

“Three decades of research show the health benefits of increased ventilation, and now our recent research shows that these benefits extend to cognitive function, yet enhanced ventilation credits in green building certification systems are not uniformly pursued. We sought to understand potential barriers to widespread adoption,” said Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment.

He added: “It is time we move away from ventilation designed for merely acceptable indoor air quality and move towards design for optimal indoor air quality. We have been presented with the false choice of energy efficiency or healthy indoor environments for too long. We can – and must – have both.”

The study provides a conservative estimate of the benefits of enhanced ventilation because it focused solely on cognitive function, according to Piers MacNaughton, doctoral candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and project manager of The COGfx Study.

“The public health literature indicates that we would expect many co-benefits of increasing ventilation rates, such as reduced absenteeism due to illness, which has clear impacts on productivity,” MacNaughton said.

The full study, which was funded by United Technologies Corp. and its UTC Climate, Controls & Security business, can be found at  The report was published  in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health’s special issue “Indoor Environmental Quality: Exposures and Occupant Health,” and builds on the recently released “Impact of Green Building on Cognitive Function” study by the same research team. Also known as The COGfx Study, the research found cognitive function test scores improved 101 percent in green and energy efficient buildings with enhanced ventilation compared to conventional buildings.

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About the Author

Elisa Wood | Editor-in-Chief

Elisa Wood is an award-winning writer and editor who specializes in the energy industry. She is chief editor and co-founder of Microgrid Knowledge and serves as co-host of the publication’s popular conference series. She also co-founded, where she continues to lead a team of energy writers who produce content for energy companies and advocacy organizations.

She has been writing about energy for more than two decades and is published widely. Her work can be found in prominent energy business journals as well as mainstream publications. She has been quoted by NPR, the Wall Street Journal and other notable media outlets.

“For an especially readable voice in the industry, the most consistent interpreter across these years has been the energy journalist Elisa Wood, whose Microgrid Knowledge (and conference) has aggregated more stories better than any other feed of its time,” wrote Malcolm McCullough, in the book, Downtime on the Microgrid, published by MIT Press in 2020.

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