Levels of the stress hormone cortisol tend to be higher in enclosed spaces like office cubicles that are artificially lit and deprived of outside views. Poor ventilation — which is common in many older office buildings — raises the levels of carbon dioxide, which studies have shown can impair cognitive performance and dampen mood.
Design that ignores the natural requirements of the human body is to blame, says Judith Heerwagen, an environmental psychologist who has studied workplaces and their impact around the United States. “More time and creativity has gone into designing natural habitats for zoo animals,” she observed in an online post, “than in creating comfortable office spaces for humans.”
But that is changing. Dr. Heerwagen, who now works for the United States General Services Administration in Washington, has helped the agency plan government buildings that include green roofs and atriums, as well as day-lit offices with expansive views of the outdoors. It is also designing spaces that encourage employees to move around and engage with one another — adding healthy exercise to work days spent largely sitting behind a desk.
Architecture with our biology in mind pays off in fewer sick days and better work performance, according to Mr. Cook. “We know that we lower absenteeism and what we call presenteeism — people showing up but not being there — by careful design,” he said. “As increasingly science backs this up, it will become very easy to get people to pay for it.”
And the science of healthy buildings continues to advance. Research by an international team in 2014 showed that people who worked in offices with leafy green plants concentrated better and were 15 percent more productive than those who went about their day in spartan offices without them.
And a study of hospitals by the architectural expert Roger Ulrich found that patients whose windows looked out on views of nature needed less pain medication and were released from the hospital on average about a day earlier than those whose rooms faced a bare brick wall.
Another study of 21,000 elementary school students in several Western states conducted by an energy consultancy firm, the Heschong Mahone Group, found that children in naturally lit classrooms scored over 20 percent higher on tests than those in artificially lit rooms.
Good light also helps keep office workers alert and healthy, said Mariana Figueiro, the director of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Too many offices are like floodlit caves, illuminated from above to cast light on the work surface of the desk, Dr. Figueiro said. We also need light from the side striking the back of the eye — preferably from a natural source like a window — to entrain our body’s internal circadian clock.
People who are deprived of this physiologically critical light can become lethargic during the daytime and experience sleep problems at night. Research has shown the disruption of our circadian system can contribute to illnesses like depression and, over the long term, increase the risk of heart disease and even breast cancer.
Exposure to natural daylight is always best, says Dr. Figueiro. But when that is not available, good quality artificial light — bluish light in the morning, and warmer yellowish light in the afternoon — to simulate what is happening outdoors will do. Some indoor lighting systems can now be programmed to mimic this natural cycle, adjusting light color and intensity to the time of the day.
Equally important as the right kind of light is fresh air, says Joseph Allen, the founder of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. Dr. Allen, who has conducted hundreds of forensic investigations on so-called “sick buildings,” says that 90 percent of these unhealthy places suffer from inadequate ventilation.
In one study conducted by Dr. Allen and his colleagues, people in properly ventilated buildings did twice as well on tests of cognitive performance and decision-making as those in poorly ventilated buildings.
“We all know what it’s like in a stuffy conference room,” Dr. Allen said. “People are tired and distracted. You can just feel it when the fresh air comes in, it’s incredibly rejuvenating.” He believes that the buildup of carbon dioxide levels indoors may depress certain brain functions, although research still needs to be done.
The CookFox architectural studio has air monitors in its office, and fresh air is pumped into spaces when carbon dioxide and pollutant levels become too high. Lower-tech solutions like opening a window can also help.
Efforts are currently underway to quantify the effects of biophilic design. Dr. Allen’s group is using virtual reality to test people’s heart rate variability and stress levels in a variety of simulated indoor environments. Researchers at Columbia University’s Cloud lab are planning to partner with the New York-based environmental consultancy firm Terrapin Bright Green in a study that will employ electroencephalography, or EEG machines, to monitor the neurological impact of green design on people in hotel lobbies.
It is a paradox that modern technology is helping to return us to the wisdom of nature, Mr. Cook said. He cautioned, however, that, it’s easy to get excited about natural design and forget our moral and ethical obligation to address climate change.
“We don’t just want more beautiful buildings and better health,” he said. “The health benefits and the energy reductions are going to need to go hand in hand.”
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