SyracuseCoE is home to the Willis H. Carrier Total Indoor Environmental Quality (TIEQ) Lab, a one-of-its-kind facility that enabled what climate expert Joe Romm calls “the seminal green building study of our time.” The recent groundbreaking study on “The Impact of Green Buildings on Cognitive Function” (COGfx) found participants’ cognitive function not only changed in response to the quality of their indoor environment, but also doubled in environments with enhanced green building ventilation.

The COGfx study “explains the great mystery of why better ventilation increases productivity,” says Romm, who heralded the findings at the 2015 Greenbuild International Conference and Expo for providing hard data that demonstrates the health and productivity benefits of green buildings.

Findings from the COGfx study showed that cognitive performance doubled in conditions that replicated green buildings with enhanced ventilation and in some functional areas—including strategy and information usage—nearly tripled. Just as important, quantitative analysis of that increased productivity found that air quality and cost are no longer a trade-off. According to the study, doubling the ventilation rate in typical office buildings can be reached at an estimated annual energy cost of between $14 and $40 per person, depending on location; this investment can result in improved productivity valued at, on average, $6,500 per person per year.

The COGfx study was led by researchers from the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University, in collaboration with faculty members from Upstate Medical University and Syracuse University, and was supported by funding from United Technologies Corporation. Experiments were conducted at the TIEQ Lab in the fall of 2014 and results were published in a series of peer-reviewed papers beginning in fall 2015.

The COGfx study has important implications for the design and operation of environmental systems for office environments. “We spend 90 percent of our time indoors. It’s logical that this has an outsized impact on our overall health and well-being, as well as productivity,” says Joseph Allen, assistant professor and director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard Chan School.

The COGfx study was specifically designed to take advantage of the capabilities of the TIEQ Lab. “This study is exactly the kind of pioneering research that we envisioned right from the start,” says Ed Bogucz, SyracuseCoE executive director. “As with many other projects that have been conducted in the TIEQ Lab, the unique capabilities of the facility and the expertise of local researchers familiar with using it attracted collaborators to Central New York.”
The TIEQ Lab consists of two rooms resembling a typical office environment; however, from the floor below, environmental conditions—such as ventilation rate, temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide concentration— can be controlled with a high degree of precision. “This allowed us to make changes to the indoor environmental quality in the TIEQ Lab while keeping the participants blinded to test conditions,” says Allen.
The COGfx study enlisted 24 professionals from Central New York firms and institutions to relocate to the TIEQ Lab for six days to per form their regular work. Near the end of each workday, they were given a cognitive assessment that evaluated real-world decision-making. Over the course of those six days, the indoor environment was modified to reflect conventional buildings, green buildings, and green buildings with enhanced ventilation.
Not only were participants unaware of changes in environmental conditions, but researchers involved in the cognitive testing were also “blind” to changing conditions as well.
“The double-blind nature of the study strengthens the integrity of our results,” says co-investigator Suresh Santanam, a Syracuse University Professor of engineering and computer science who is an expert in indoor air quality and air pollution control, and director of SU’s Industrial Assessment Center.
Usha Satish, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Upstate Medical University, led the testing using the Strategic Management Simulation, a highly reliable cognitive testing tool. The computer-based test posed diverse situations based on real-world challenges, allowing users to respond and strategize in their own cognitive style.
“The simulation scenarios have been validated to replicate people’s daily decision-making,” says Satish.
This study—and the impact its results are expected to bring— is precisely what was anticipated when the lab was conceived.
“Research is a long and costly process,” says Santanam. “It would not have been unusual if it took a decade for published research to have come out of the TIEQ Lab.
The impact the lab has made in our knowledge base in a relatively short time is really quite remarkable.”