The Power of Living Green

Residents of LEED-certified building in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, believe what's good for the environment is good for them too.

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This podcast is part of the Sustainable Design radio program, a collaboration between IEEE Spectrum and the National Science Foundation.

Susan Hassler: When people hear “sustainable buildings,” they typically think “energy-efficient” or “good for the environment.” But the standards for a green building also include the health of its occupants. Certified green buildings tend to have better air quality, daylight, acoustics. Does that mean happier, healthier people? Prachi Patel visited some LEED-certified buildings in Pittsburgh to find out.
Prachi Patel: We’re in an old soap factory on Pittsburgh’s South Side. These are the renovated offices for the nonprofit organization Conservation Consultants. Their education coordinator Indigo Raffel shows me around.

Indigo Raffel: We are very energy-efficient. We operate at about 40 percent of the energy usage of a comparable building.

Prachi Patel: With upgrades like better insulation and high-efficiency furnaces, this building has earned the LEED Gold rating. LEED is short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It’s the U.S. Green Building Council’s rating system that has become synonymous with green buildings. Saving energy scores big. But a chunk of points comes from improving indoor air quality and comfort. Raffel lifts a round lid off an air vent in the wood floor.

Indigo Raffel: So you have this element, and it’s a very low-tech kind of piece. And people have the option of opening them if they need more heat and closing them if they don’t and the same applies to air conditioning.

Prachi Patel: Pretty much every workspace has access to a window. The furniture, flooring, paints, and cleaning supplies are free of volatile chemicals like formaldehyde. Raffel says she feels healthier and breathes better here.

Indigo Raffel: I almost don’t notice this, but when I go into other spaces, like downtown into an office building, you know you have a meeting and you go, you notice the congestion, the odor.

Aurora Sharrard: I think the main thing about working in a LEED-certified space is that it’s not the things that you notice, it’s the things that you don’t notice.

Prachi Patel: Aurora Sharrard is the innovation director at the Green Building Council. Their office in an historic industrial building is rated platinum, LEED’s top rating. Having a comfortable workspace makes you work better, she says.

Aurora Sharrard: So people are traditionally uncomfortable with their temperature so they’re constantly thinking I’m too hot, I’m too cold. When they’re thinking that, they’re not working. So, I’m really glad I work where I do because I come in here and I never think I’m too hot, I’m too cold, oh I wish I had more light.

Prachi Patel: But how do you go about measuring productivity in a building? Studies make sense in places where people do repetitive tasks, Sharrard says. Pittsburgh’s PNC Bank has done a study in their traditional branches versus their newer LEED-certified branches.

Aurora Sharrard: They have this very nice comparison set that shows that people who work in their green branches are happier and actually process more transactions and are more productive.

Prachi Patel: Another good place to study productivity is schools. LEED-certified school buildings have some characteristics that benefit students, says Carnegie Mellon University architecture professor Vivian Loftness.

Vivian Loftness: There is very good scientific literature that shows that kids in noisy classrooms perform less well than kids in quiet classrooms. At the same time there’s also some very good research that shows that kids that are in well-ventilated classrooms will perform better and be healthier than ones in poorly ventilated classrooms.

Prachi Patel: Gauging the health effects of green buildings is hard, because it needs long-term measurements, Loftness says. Scandinavian and European countries have taken the lead on such studies. She describes one from Sweden.

Vivian Loftness: They have gone into a dozen schools and improved the ventilation quality in half of the classrooms in half of those schools. They found that in the classrooms that had a high-volume, low-velocity displacement ventilation system installed, that the asthma rates in children over a two-year period, measured by medical doctors, had dropped by over 50 percent. That’s a huge reduction.

Prachi Patel: Loftness also talks about the positive effects of being in rooms with lots of daylight. Studies show that patients have shorter hospital stays and students perform better on standardized tests. Unlike acoustics or ventilation, light is pretty noticeable.

Jason Forck: Yeah, yeah, you definitely notice the natural light, in—especially in—the flame shop right here and the hot shop upstairs.

Paige Ilkhanipour: Very colorful, cool design. Which was a cool place to work but not nearly as much light as you see here at the glass center.

Prachi Patel: That’s Jason Forck and Paige Ilkhanipour, who work at the LEED Gold Pittsburgh Glass Center. Of course, there are those who don’t notice they’re in a green building.

[Children’s noises]

Prachi Patel: At the Carriage House Children’s Center, kids aren’t thinking about the green features of their renovated historic school building. Founding director Natalie Kaplan says research studies aside, you can’t go wrong living sustainably.

Natalie Kaplan: If something is environmentally friendly it’s going to be healthier for the children. We certainly hope it is.

Prachi Patel: Cutting energy use and waste is a source of pride for everyone at Carriage House. So, being in a green building could help you take fewer sick days and work better. But you can also breathe easier knowing that you’re actually helping the environment. I’m Prachi Patel.

This podcast is part of the Sustainable Design radio program, a collaboration between IEEE Spectrum and the National Science Foundation.