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Why Office Buildings Should Run Like…Spaceships

Check out this article by Christopher Mims, as recently published in the Wall Street Journal (Oct 8, 2017).

As a profusion of environmental sensors becomes increasingly available, indoor air quality is something building managers can track and manage.

If you have ever yearned to work aboard the Starship Enterprise, take comfort: The newest office buildings have more in common with spaceships than you realize. It isn’t just Apple’s new campus, either. As work takes an ever more central place in our lives, engineers, architects and scientists are beginning to view our workplaces as sealed structures that must actively manage their internal environments, while mitigating pollution and other hazards that are the cost of doing business in many of the world’s most economically productive cities.
Big cities such as Beijing, Los Angeles, London and Nairobi regularly experience air so bad their citizens are warned to stay indoors. Office buildings with sealed windows are now the norm, but that can lead to other health hazards. For instance, volatile organic compounds, emitted from furniture and carpets, combine with the carbon dioxide we exhale to create an environment that has the potential to make us sleepy and dimwitted.
Scientists have been trying for decades to figure out how to help humans survive long-haul missions in orbit and to Mars. They take into account light levels, temperature, humidity and dozens of other factors including working styles. The biggest difference between that research and what’s happening here on Earth is that office optimization isn’t about survival, but productivity—getting the most out of every worker.

As environmental sensors become widely available, indoor air quality is no longer an academic pursuit, but something building managers can track and manage. Benjamin Kott, chief executive of U.K.-based building-monitoring startup EnergyDeck, faces problems typical of startup founders everywhere: funding, morale and employees who get sleepy after lunch. But at least he has a handle on that last issue, because he’s testing his own technology in the 670-square-foot office where his 15-person team is jammed.
“By 2 p.m., the CO2 level in the office is like 1,000 parts per million,” says Mr. Kott. That’s about 2 ½ times the current level of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere.

According to a recent study from researchers at Harvard University, Syracuse University and SUNY Upstate Medical University, that level is high enough to decrease cognitive performance in knowledge workers by 15%. Many offices have high levels of carbon dioxide, but the worst offenders are meeting rooms, where carbon-dioxide levels can reach 3,000 ppm. Engineers and architects are looking at other measures to assess the environment of office buildings. Temperature, humidity, light—even noise and odors—are within reach of a profusion of cheap sensors, says Arjun Kaicker, head of user parametrics at Zaha Hadid Architects in London.

ZHA, which has 36 projects under way in 21 countries, has set up a test facility in its central London offices that uses sensors to provide a stream of data that can be correlated with self-reported levels of productivity and satisfaction. In the past, Mr. Kaicker says, architects designed buildings based on this own experience, which could only take them so far. “We can now with sensors just see what works well and what works badly,” he said.
The result is called “evidence-based design,” says Yodit Stanton, founder and chief executive of OpenSensors.io, which provides underlying technology for ZHA’s test facility.
Beyond air quality, research has discovered that getting the office temperature wrong also can have consequences for worker productivity. Some offices have taken to employing new technology to create individualized “thermal bubbles” for each employee. When it comes to light, it isn’t only about having enough, but also the right kind. A nice window view increases productivity and the exposure to daylight boosts happiness, says research from Northwestern Medicine and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
If views and sunlight are in short supply, there are alternatives. Shifting the color “temperature” of office LED lights from yellow to blue can boost workers’ ability to concentrate.
In many ways, this research is still preliminary, cautions Ben Waber, founder and CEO of Humanyze, a Boston-based company that uses wearable and embedded sensors to evaluate worker productivity.It can be hard to correlate environmental tweaks to changes in actual productivity, Mr. Waber says. Even the novelty of a new office space can elicit a boost in self-reported worker satisfaction.

Nevertheless, new building standards based on the research are becoming selling points for landlords seeking to differentiate their buildings, and for tenants looking to attract top talent, says Leeson Medhurst, head of workplace consultancy 360 Workplace.
In China, for example, a building certification standard called the Reset Standard is focused on air quality, allowing workers and employers to report in real time on the breathability of air inside buildings.
The Well building standard, invented in the U.S., includes air, water and light quality within buildings, as well as noise, temperature and even the availability of healthy food and fitness facilities.
These standards are modeled on green building standards like Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), which in turn has been adopted into actual building codes by some cities. Baltimore, for instance, mandates that all new buildings meet the International Green Construction Code. Cities have yet to mandate anything like Well, but they might eventually follow as more builders adopt them.
Meanwhile, in central London, Mr. Kott faces a dilemma. His office’s hip neighborhood—known as the Silicon Roundabout—suffers from bad air pollution. Opening windows to vent the midafternoon carbon-dioxide buildup lets in too much toxic smog.
The solution, he says, is an HVAC system that dynamically responds to both carbon-dioxide levels and levels of airborne particulate matter, pumping in fresh air while filtering out pollutants. It’s remarkably similar to the kind of air-circulation systems that NASA uses—on spaceships.