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Joseph Allen Discusses How Eco-Friendly Buildings Affect Cognitive Function

In an effort to change the way people think about the role of the environment in public health, Joseph G. Allen, a professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health and BC ’98, discussed his project, “The Impact of Green Buildings on Cognitive Function Studies” on Monday night.

Allen began his talk by explaining that humans spend 90 percent of their time indoors and only 10 percent of their time outdoors. Given these statistics, it is clear to see that the time spent indoors plays a crucial role in an individual’s health.

Allen was inspired to find ways to optimize the indoor environment for human health and activity. He and his team of researchers conducted two studies to find the best possible solutions for indoor living.
Allen’s first study showed that cognitive test scores doubled with an improvement in indoor air quality.

According to Allen’s research group’s website dedicated to the two studies,, cognitive performance scores averaged 101 percent higher in buildings with enhanced ventilation compared to those in normal buildings. The website also adds that the most significant differences in cognitive function were with how the the participants reacted to high-intensity situations and the application of information and strategy.

Allen defined conventional buildings as typical office spaces, green buildings as buildings low in volatile organic compounds (VOC), and enhanced green buildings as buildings that are low in VOC and have high ventilation. VOCs are organic chemicals that have a high vapor pressure at ordinary room temperature. Allen compares the three different building types in order to observe whether the buildings have any significant effect on participants’ health results and productivity.

“This study suggests that indoor environments can have a profound impact on the decision-making performance of workers, which is a primary indicator of worker productivity,” Allen said.

The results suggest that VOCs and carbon dioxide levels typically found in conventional buildings correlate to poor work performance.

In a second study, Allen looked into what is called “Buildingomics,” or a study of examining all of the factors of the building-related environment that have an impact on public health and productivity.

One of the key things Allen’s team notes in this study is that the use of blue-enriched light, such as daylight, during the day, improves sleep and cognitive thinking. The blue-enriched light results in a greater production of the hormone melatonin, allowing for an increased ability to sleep at night. In regard to the study, when sleep quality was 25 percent higher, cognitive function increased by 2.8 percent the following day.

Participants in Allen’s study also noted that there were 30 percent fewer “sick building symptoms”—illness or symptoms of illness due to the building quality—in green buildings than in conventional buildings, and had fewer complaints about temperature, air movement, air dryness or humidity, and specific odors.

“Our goal is to improve the lives of all people, in all buildings, everywhere, every day,” Allen said on “We see health as the primary motivator for action.”

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor

November 10, 2016