Economic, Environmental and Health Implications of Enhanced Ventilation in Office Buildings

Wednesday 18th November 2015

Published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

By Piers MacNaughton, James Pegues, Usha Satish, Suresh Santanam, John Spengler and Joseph Allen.

Introduction: Current building ventilation standards are based on acceptable minimums. Three decades of research demonstrates the human health benefits of increased ventilation above these minimums. Recent research also shows the benefits on human decision-making performance in office workers, which translates to increased productivity. However, adoption of enhanced ventilation strategies is lagging. We sought to evaluate two of the perceived potential barriers to more widespread adoption—Economic and environmental costs.

Methods: We estimated the energy consumption and associated per building occupant costs for office buildings in seven U.S. cities, representing different climate zones for three ventilation scenarios (standard practice (20 cfm/person), 30% enhanced ventilation, and 40 cfm/person) and four different heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system strategies (Variable Air Volume (VAV) with reheat and a Fan Coil Unit (FCU), both with and without an energy recovery ventilator). We also estimated emissions of greenhouse gases associated with this increased energy usage, and, for comparison, converted this to the equivalent number of vehicles using greenhouse gas equivalencies. Lastly, we paired results from our previous research on cognitive function and ventilation with labor statistics to estimate the economic benefit of increased productivity associated with increasing ventilation rates.

Results: Doubling the ventilation rate from the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers minimum cost less than $40 per person per year in all climate zones investigated. Using an energy recovery ventilation system significantly reduced energy costs, and in some scenarios led to a net savings. At the highest ventilation rate, adding an ERV essentially neutralized the environmental impact of enhanced ventilation (0.03 additional cars on the road per building across all cities). The same change in ventilation improved the performance of workers by 8%, equivalent to a $6500 increase in employee productivity each year. Reduced absenteeism and improved health are also seen with enhanced ventilation.

Conclusions: The health benefits associated with enhanced ventilation rates far exceed the per-person energy costs relative to salary costs. Environmental impacts can be mitigated at regional, building, and individual-level scales through the transition to renewable energy sources, adoption of energy efficient systems and ventilation strategies, and promotion of other sustainable policies.