Making the Case for Green Building: Health and Productivity Benefits

To those of us entrenched in the green building world the benefits seem obvious. Why would anyone choose to build in a way that isn’t comfortable, healthy and energy-efficient? In the process of designing and building green, however, we keep running into others who are not yet as convinced. For those situations, it’s useful to be able to spell out the benefits. Following are some of the health and productivity benefits of building green.

Improved health — By virtue of the materials used, moisture-control detailing, pollution- and contamination-rejection strategies, and ventilation strategies, green buildings are healthier buildings. Americans spend 85 to 95 percent of their time indoors, so the quality of the indoor environment is extremely important. Indeed, in many building sectors, ensuring healthy living and working spaces is likely to become the single most important driving force for a transition to green building.

Enhanced comfort — Measures that reduce drafts, minimize floor-to-ceiling temperature stratification and control noise improve comfort in buildings. In commercial and institutional buildings, the controllability of individual workspaces — a feature in many green buildings — addresses the fact that different people have different needs when it comes to temperature, ventilation and light levels. Individuals often benefit psychologically just from knowing that they have this control over their workspace environment.

Reduced absenteeism — Keeping workers healthier — for example, through control of contaminants and displacement ventilation strategies (as achieved when raised access floors are used for conditioned air supply) — can significantly reduce work lost to illness. William Fisk, P.E., head of the Indoor Environment Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has demonstrated that improved ventilation systems would reduce respiratory illness by nine to 20 percent, yielding a savings in the U.S. of $6 to $14 billion per year.

Improved worker productivity — The economic benefits of boosting productivity are tremendous. Just a one percent increase in productivity, for example, will more than offset the total energy costs in the average building. Studies by Carnegie Mellon University have shown productivity increases in green buildings ranging from 0.4 to 18 percent. As more companies come to appreciate the value of productivity improvements, this is likely to become an increasingly important driver of green building.

Improved learning — In schools, such green features as daylighting, noise control and views to the outdoors are being shown to increase rates of learning. A landmark 1999 study by the Heschong Mahone Group (HMG) found that daylighting in the Capistrano, Calif., school district increased the rate of learning by 20 to 26 percent. More recent studies by the same group in a different school system found a positive correlation between views to the outdoors and learning rates.

Faster recovery from illness — Views to the outdoors and connections to nature have been shown to promote more rapid healing in hospitals, while displacement ventilation can dramatically reduce the spread of illness through airborne viruses and bacteria. Green building features such as these are increasingly being viewed as strategies for reducing healthcare costs. The nation’s largest healthcare provider, Kaiser Permanente, which plans to build more than two dozen hospitals in the next decade, is committed to a comprehensive green building agenda.

Alex Wilson is president of BuildingGreen, Inc. Adapted and reprinted with permission from Environmental Building News (EBN). For information on EBN and other green building resources, visit