Get Smart: COGfx Study 2

Could cleaner air make you smarter? Just one year ago, I reported on the stunning results of the Harvard/Syracuse/SUNY Upstate COGfx Study correlating cognitive function with air quality. Now the sequel has been released.


“Why are we ignoring the 90% of our time that’s spent indoors?” Joe Allen (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health) asked attendees at Buildingomics: A New Approach to Green Building. The manual on indoor air quality—ASHRAE Standard 62.1—defines airflow of 20 cubic feet per minute as “acceptable.” And since that’s what’s referenced in the building code, that’s what everyone designs to! Can commercial buildings go beyond “acceptable” to increase health and productivity?

Last year’s study found that doubling ventilation could double cognitive function, including notably improved performance at CO2 levels far below those normally considered problematic. And with energy efficient technologies, the cost may be as low as $1-$18 per year per employee. The study was peer reviewed and highly cited; the question everyone asked was: How does the real world compare to these lab results?


To go into the real world, beyond one-variable-at-a-time analysis, Allen struck a parallel with investigations into genetics. Researchers used to look at one gene at a time; now, the field of “genomics” looks at all genes at the same time. Buildingomics is the equivalent for indoor air quality, considering many factors, how they interact, and how they influence health, well-being, and productivity.

The study observed office workers in five cities: Los Angeles, San Jose, Denver, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Each city had a pair of high-performing buildings similar in almost every parameter except one: green certification. In the green certified buildings, employees reported better indoor air quality and fewer complaints about temperature, air movement, humidity, and odor. And they liked the daylighting better, too. This translated into higher cognitive function scores in the green certified buildings (see graph below).

Allen attributed the performance increase to better thermal comfort and better sleep (probably because of the improved daylighting enhancing circadian rhythms).


To further the effort, Allen’s team is using distributed sensors to monitor thermal comfort and other factors that could affect cognition. As a data visualization buff, the real time display demo made my mousing fingers itch with anticipation (see sample graphs below).

Distributed sensors (blue dots) showing thermally comfortable conditions (green box).

Time to call the people in the basement with the blue shirts!

Allen said the reaction from architecture and real estate groups has been positive: “They realize that green building movement is turning into the healthy building movement.” That doesn’t mean they don’t have questions. How does this work in high-rise buildings? Does adding additional ventilation mean larger equipment and shaft work, competing for every square inch of rentable area in a market like New York? We look forward to hearing more on a third study.