Do We Really Need Business Cases for Healthy Indoor Environments?

We in the green-building movement — regardless of our trade — must transform the hearts and minds of those whose decisions influence the work environments of their colleagues.

Over the past 14 years, a few particular experiences have shaped my perspective on this importance of interior space to its occupants:

  1. Being a project manager during the construction of two LEED-CI Platinum headquarters;
  2. Being an occupant of those spaces and of more “conventional” ones; and
  3. Having conversations with architects, engineers, contractors, environmentalists, developers, product manufacturers, tenants, and building owners.

USGBC - Conference Room

Epiphany

I joined the U.S. Green Building Council in 2005 after my partners and I sold our architecture practice. Within months, USGBC’s growth necessitated expansion into its first real headquarters, with a mandate to achieve a Platinum LEED for Commercial Interiors rating.

I had no idea what that entailed, but everyone including LEED staff said it would be hard – and it was.   The project team was relatively inexperienced with LEED and was not well integrated, making the rules and processes that much harder to follow.

But I experienced an epiphany that confirmed the importance of USGBC’s mission and made it personal.

USGBC - Open Office

Typical of a fast-track project, the final phase of build-out included a 48-hour blitz of carpeting and painting.   Immediately after this, I entered the suite, excited to see the nearly finished space.   Within 15 seconds, my olfactory senses took over, alerting me of something totally unexpected:   the absence of odor.

A reaction of excitement and pride followed as I realized that the outcome of green building transcended visual design.   The absence of odor correlated to the absence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nasty chemicals used to create paint, carpet, furniture, and other elements of the indoor environment.

This space would be healthy space from day one.

Of course, even a LEED Platinum rating does not ensure perfection.

  • The new space was over-lit and the shift to low-height separations between workstations generated complaints of visual and aural distraction.
  • Recommended sound-masking had fallen victim to budget constraints.
  • Some materials did not perform as advertised.
  • Airflow and temperature control varied.

However, as a workplace it represented a major improvement from the rabbit warrens we previously occupied, with exceptional daylighting being the most popular feature.

USGBC - Open Office, View 2

Experience

Less than three years later, continued growth necessitated USGBC’s move into a much larger space, certified Platinum under LEED for Commercial Interiors 2009.   In making this workspace a reality, we drew from our previous experience.

The integrated project team created a remarkable indoor environment.

  • Staff quickly appreciated the exceptional indoor air quality.
  • I never tired during the afternoon.
  • Workstations were pulled away from windows, mitigating solar heat gain and cold drafts in the winter.
  • Sound masking worked as advertised, and complaints about the low partitions ended.
  • Once programmed properly, the cutting edge lighting system reduced power consumption dramatically and provided the right level of light for occupants.   It also provided direct economic benefit, since the suite was separately metered.

Most tellingly, visitors to our offices said they experienced a sense of energy and wellbeing.

On several occasions, corporate executives commented that it was the best office space they had ever experienced.   I heard similar testimonies from USGBC customers about their LEED space whenever I would visit them to present a LEED plaque.

Yet despite the benefits it can convey, the pursuit of LEED CI is relatively moribund at present.

A significant number of tenants, brokers, politicians, school boards, landlords, and other decision-makers continue to cite the lack of a proven business case around productivity as the reason they are not investing in the indoor environment.

How can this be?

USGBC - Private Workspace

Reality

Common sense and our physical senses inform us that a better indoor environment will deliver multiple benefits to occupants. This has been proven in schools, where test scores in green schools are higher and absences due to respiratory illness such as asthma are reduced.

The upswing in building retrofits currently underway is gratifying, but it tilts heavily toward energy reduction, with less discussion of indoor health.

While tangential benefits to air circulation and quality may occur, a more intentional and informed approach to designing and managing the indoor environment needs to take place.

Decision makers for tenants should insist on an indoor environment that benefits their most important assets:Â   employees.

Yes, the economics must work, but the analysis must transcend a spreadsheet when evaluating the return on investment in workspace.

The triple bottom line of People, Planet, and Profit inspires me in my work. Â  We in the green building movement can demonstrate leadership by helping our clients think more expansively about how they define profit.

In doing so, we will enhance the power of each element of this powerful equation for positive change.

 

  • Â  Architecture & Design Firm – Envision Design
  • Photography – Eric Laignel
Chris Smith

Chris Smith leads the Built Environment Division of The Cadmus Group, a social good consultancy. He previously served as COO of USGBC, and COO/CFO of Ai, now part of Perkins+Will. You can reach him at chris.smith@cadmusgroup.com.

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