by Janelle Sorensen, Content Director at Elemental Green
October is National Work & Family Month, when businesses, academic institutions, federal agencies, members of Congress, work-life advocacy groups, and individuals collectively raise awareness about making it easier for employees to succeed at work and at home. I know a simple and extremely effective solution: Go green! As it turns out, going green has plenty of benefits for more than just the planet. Research shows that green buildings have a hugely positive impact on the health (mental and physical) of the lucky people who live and work there. Going green means improving indoor air quality, making use of natural lighting, and using eco-friendly materials — all of which contribute to your happiness, health, and productivity.
Want to Be Happier, Healthier, and More Productive? Go Green!
Going Green & Health
The main reason why green homes are healthier: They have excellent indoor air quality. Going green means using low- or zero-VOC paints and materials, eliminating respiratory and immune system distress commonly associated with traditional buildings. Plus, green homes typically sport excellent ventilation systems — a steady flow of fresh air into the home means no build-up of stale and polluted air. Tightened building envelopes are another feature that makes green buildings healthier. A tighter seal means less airborne irritants, like allergens and dust.
What does the science say about green living and health?
Commercially, going green is a no-brainer. Some studies show that a healthier office building means a serious decrease in the number of sick days workers take off– saving anywhere from $37-55 per square foot of the building annually. But what about residentially?
In two National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) case studies, residents of apartment complexes were surveyed before and after their housing units underwent a complete green retrofit. In a third case study, a brand-new green living complex was built, and residents were surveyed before and after they moved in.
In all cases, residents reported feeling happier and healthier in their new living conditions. According to NCHH, in one case, residents “showed improvements in general health, chronic bronchitis, hay fever, sinusitis, and asthma” immediately following the renovation. The general health of the kids living in the complex improved, too, with many kids experiencing a sharp decline in ear infections and respiratory allergies. And it didn’t stop there — one year after the renovation, the percentage of residents reporting good or excellent health nearly doubled.
As for the residents who moved to the newly-built green living complex: Children who suffered from asthma in their previous homes had 63 percent more totally symptom-free days than before and showed dramatic improvements in lung function. And according to the study, “as asthma symptoms and triggers declined, the quality of life for families improved: fewer sleepless nights, less lost work and school days, increased exercise and outdoor activities, and lower medical expenses.” When kids are faced with significantly fewer asthma triggers, they’re much more able to take part in outdoor activities, making friends and keeping physically healthy as they do so. More play = more laughter and smiles!
Going Green & Happiness
Research suggests that green buildings, particularly those that make use of efficient and natural light, have a positive impact on the mental health of the people that live and work there. And as mentioned before, residents who moved from their old homes to a green building reported feeling both healthier and happier. While improved health certainly results in increased happiness, other factors in green design play into better moods, as well. In a study published in the journal Environment, Development and Sustainability, researchers found that sustainable practices, such as community gardens, green spaces, green homes, and sustainable transportation, lead to self-reported increases in happiness. Other research shows that simply bringing a little nature indoors increases happiness and productivity.
Two other things about going green can lead to more smiles, as well: Saving money and peace of mind.
Going green means focusing on resource efficiency (water and energy) — and resource efficiency means a dramatic reduction in monthly bills. How exactly does saving money contribute to happiness, you ask? It all comes down to stress. The American Psychological Association began surveying the general public in 2007 to determine the biggest factors contributing to stress levels. The results have shown that, regardless of income or economic climate, money and finances have consistently remained as the top stressor in American homes. And monthly bills are a major culprit — 54 percent of Americans report a feeling of hardly making ends meet at the end of each month when bills roll around.
There’s a way to soothe the stress: going green! Making efficiency upgrades to your home can shrink your monthly expenses like crazy. For example, LEED-certified homes are designed to use about 30 to 60 percent less energy saving homeowners thousands of dollars over the years. Installing energy-efficient appliances and water-efficient fixtures are both examples of projects with initial extra costs, but big-time paybacks in the long run.
Peace of Mind
Happiness can be a tough thing to scientifically measure. It’s not hard, however, to imagine how good it feels to live in a healthy, sustainable home or work in a healthy, sustainable office. A green building creates delight on the way in and regret upon leaving. What is it about green building that’s so special? Many people agree that they just feel cleaner and better. Plus, green home dwellers experience a special kind of happiness that comes with knowing their home has less impact on the environment.
Going Green & Productivity
Some truly astonishing findings suggest that productivity of a business can skyrocket when the employees are moved to a green and healthy environment. One study by Rocky Mountain Institute found that companies who voluntarily adopt green practices have employees that are 16 percent more productive on average.
Many studies also highlight the benefits that come with green building features, like natural daylighting, improved ventilation and fresh air flow, and improved indoor air quality. These green features in particular are linked directly with an increase in employee productivity and a reduction in the number of sick days employees take. For example, one study surveyed two groups of employees before and after they moved to an LEED-certified office building. After the move, employee absenteeism due to respiratory issues dropped by 50 percent, and the amount of time that the employees felt the effects of allergies or asthma dropped by 60 percent. Just imagine cutting the days you suffer from allergies in half!
IAQ & Productivity
The reason behind this increase in productivity? More than likely, the main cause is an improvement in air quality. More advanced ventilation systems mean the air in green buildings is always fresh and clean, with little to no airborne irritants present. Indeed, recent studies show that an improvement in indoor air quality can have some truly astonishing results. A 2015 Syracuse University study showed that working in an unpolluted environment with fresh and healthy air improves your cognitive abilities. The study monitored 24 people working in different air quality conditions: A conventional office environment, and an office environment with improved ventilation and low-VOC emissions, dubbed the Green+ environment. At the end of the day, the researchers tested each group for cognitive ability and response time — and the results were pretty profound. Members of the Green+ group showed strategic thinking abilities that nearly doubled those of the control group, and their crisis response was a whopping 131 percent better!
CO2 & Productivity
When we’re outdoors, we’re usually breathing air with carbon dioxide levels around 400 parts per millions, or ppm. But in indoor environments, CO2 levels are often significantly higher – around 800-1,200ppm, sometimes even as high as 1,500ppm. And as it turns out, these high CO2 concentrations have a significant impact on cognitive function. A Harvard study found that people working in a healthy environment with low CO2 levels will experience a 15 percent decrease in cognitive performance scores when they’re moved to a place with CO2 levels at 950ppm. Even worse – this figure grows to 50 percent when CO2 levels are increased to 1,400ppm. Can you believe it? Most of us are most likely about 15 percent less productive due to the CO2 buildup in our workplaces and homes. And those of us with more severe CO2 levels are only half as productive as we’re capable of. Bottom line: When it comes to productivity, improved ventilation is key.
Natural Lighting & Productivity
Another reason green buildings mean higher levels of productivity: they often make use of natural and more efficient lighting. Can you imagine working nearly 25 percent more efficiently in your home simply because you installed larger windows or a skylight? Research suggests that may be possible. One study from The Center for Building Performance and Diagnostics at Carnegie Mellon found that improved lighting can mean up to 23 percent gains in individual productivity. Another study compared two groups of people: one exposed to daylight, the other to artificial light, over three work days. Those who worked in the naturally-lit environment were significantly more alert at the end of the day than those who worked in the artificial light. In short, the improved lighting that comes with going green may be all that is needed to drastically improve productivity. Amazing!
The Future of Green Building and Health, Happiness, and Productivity
Green building standards are always evolving for the better. Some of the newest ones include explicit requirements for designs that focus on human well-being. For example, the Living Building Challenge, dubbed the strictest standards in the world, has a mission to create a nourishing, highly productive, and healthy built environment. The WELL Building Standard recognizes that “our built environment can shape our habits and choices, regulate our sleep-wake cycle, drive us toward healthy and unhealthy choices, and passively influence our health through the quality of our surroundings.” Our understanding of the intimate connection between our well-being and our environments continues to grow, and there’s no longer any denying that going green significantly increases health, happiness, and productivity.