Energy Management in Buildings: An Historical And Costly Mistake We Are All Guilty Of

Most people think of building management systems merely as a means to improve the energy and resource efficiency of buildings and offices. However, research reported in two recent news articles has raised an enticing possibility: Intentional building management may also be a means to increase the productivity of workers.

The New York Times article “Is Conference Room Air Making You Dumber?” considers research into the effect that elevated levels of carbon dioxide in indoor spaces has on the decision-making abilities of workers. The results of a number of studies suggest that the higher the concentration of carbon dioxide in a room (which directly correlates to the number of workers exhaling in the room and the length of time they have been doing so), the greater the negative impact this carbon dioxide has on the decision-making functions of the brain. Those lengthy, closed conference meetings may, it turns out, be even more counterproductive than commonly thought.

Room air temperature is another factor that can affect worker productivity. An article published by CNN reports on a study conducted by researchers from the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, which found that a modest upward adjustment to the thermostat significantly improved women’s performance on math and verbal tests (the effect on the male subjects in the study was statistically insignificant). It seems that more than simply comfort is at stake, then, when the office thermostat is concerned.

Of course, raising the thermostat would potentially raise energy costs as well. This would, in turn, seem to undermine the traditional emphasis on reducing energy consumption as a means of saving a company money and thereby preserving profits. Perhaps it is time, however, to consider that this consumption-centric approach to building automation systems may be misguided.

For one thing, it is not clear that the savings produced by reduced energy consumption are all that significant: The property management firm Jones Lange LaSalle developed what it calls the “3-30-300 rule,” which estimates the cost of utilities for a typical commercial office space at $3 per square foot, building rental costs at $30 per square foot, and employee payroll costs at $300 per square foot. Given these figures, a seemingly impressive 10% increase in energy efficiency by a company would boost corporate profits by a mere 30 cents per square foot.

The 3-30-300 Rule in Action

Considering a 100,000 square-foot-office, a 10% improvement in each of the three categories -energy savings (cost of utilities), building rental, and productivity (employee payroll)- would yield savings of:

Energy Savings (cost of utilities): $30,000
Building Rental: $300,000
Productivity (employee payroll): $3,000,000

What if, instead of focusing on the utility-cost factor in the 3-30-300 rule, businesses were to direct their attention to the payroll factor and put to use lessons learned from the research into indoor environmental effects on worker productivity? Increasing the workplace productivity of employees by 10% would, based on the 3-30-300 rule, benefit the corporate bottom line by $30 per square foot, far more than the pennies in savings generated by an increase in energy efficiency. Actually, for a 100,000-square-foot office, the total savings would be on the order of $3,000,000.

One way to apply the insights of research and to increase productivity would be to grant employees more individual control over their workplace environments—in particular, over the thermostat. If workers were allowed to raise the thermostat to a temperature that optimizes the mental performance of all employees, or if work zones of different temperatures were provided as needed, the financial benefit to companies could be enormous.

Likewise, if facilities owners invested in more advanced monitoring and control systems, such as installing air quality sensors in office workspaces and ensuring that adequate air flow is maintained throughout all rooms of a building would help prevent the negative impact of elevated carbon dioxide levels, not to mention other pollutants (PM, VOCs, NOx etc). Such measures could promote productivity not only by protecting the mental acuity of employees but also by improving worker satisfaction, thus increasing employee retention and reducing absenteeism and presenteeism.

Most buildings are managed penny-wise and pound foolish according to @JLL and their 3/30/300 rule. By considering occupants health and well-being instead of energy savings only, a 100,000 sq ft office can yield as much as of $3,000,000 in increased productivity.

Click to Tweet

It seems clear that there is more to designing effective building management systems than simply mitigating energy consumption. The findings of recent research combined with basic mathematics of corporate cost calculations suggest that the greatest return on investment will be achieved when we balance the traditional concern over excessive energy consumption with an awareness of the significant impact that indoor environmental factors can have on worker productivity and satisfaction.

Energy efficiency is an important global concern for sure, but it should be possible for businesses to utilize building management systems that both moderate energy consumption and at the same time take into account the productivity needs of employees in a way that generates larger gains for all concerned.

Foobot Smart Air System’s technology monitors your office air quality 24/7/365. Thanks to the use of Machine Learning algorithms our technology is able to automatically control your HVAC system to counteract spikes of some pollutants, humidity, temperature, or occupancy, and keeping comfort at the same time. This way your office will breathe healthier air, see productivity levels increase and energy bills tank. Learn more here.