One of the largest building materials makers decided to prove the performance of its products in a real work setting by creating a high-quality environment in its North American headquarters in Malvern, Pa. Then, Saint-Gobain used the 289,000-sq-ft retrofit-expansion of the 1960s building as a living laboratory for an occupant comfort study. The research went further than most by starting with a staff comfort survey in the company’s former offices in Valley Forge, Pa.

The three-year pre- and post-occupant-comfort initiative, likely a first on such a large scale, has shown that the design of Saint-Gobain’s $80-million Malvern facility resulted in a 90% improvement in indoor air quality (IAQ) and a 40% improvement in acoustical comfort. Overall, occupants reported a 26.3% improvement in visual, acoustical, thermal and spatial comfort.

IAQ and acoustical improvements “defied our expectations,” says Ihab Elzeyadi, director of the High Performance Environments Lab (HiPE) at the University of Oregon and the principal researcher for the Saint-Gobain North American Headquarters Occupant Comfort Study, released last month by Saint-Gobain. “We were hoping for better” results on thermal comfort, which were both positive and negative, Elzeyadi adds. Thermal comfort is “tricky,” especially with large open-plan offices, he says.

More Productive

Specifically, some 40% of employees reported feeling more productive, and 22.5% felt it was easier to do their job than at Valley Forge. There also was a 53.7% improvement in perceptions of health and well-being.

In terms of sick building syndrome, 25% reported a decrease in dry eyes, 19% in tired eyes, 22% in difficulty concentrating and 30% in back pain. 
HiPE worked on the study with a Saint Gobain team of building scientists, researchers, engineers, project managers and salespeople.

“The study results make a business case for creating such a building,” says Lucas J. Hamilton, manager of building science applications for Saint-Gobain’s subsidiary, CertainTeed Corp., a maker of nonstructural building materials, such as roofing, siding, insulation and decking.

In the company’s call center, where employees develop building project leads, the same group making the same number of phone calls reported developing 140% more qualified sales leads. “The staff is more engaged than they were in the old building,” says Hamilton.

And word of the quality workplace has spread. There are 50% more qualified applicants for each open position, he adds.

HiPE used the same test protocol for the old, traditionally designed headquarters as for Malvern, which is certified LEED Platinum. About 40% of the Malvern and Valley Forge respondents were the same.

Earlier studies generally confirm an improvement in building performance for LEED buildings over non-LEED. But until the Saint-Gobain study “we couldn’t confirm impacts on improved indoor environmental quality,” says Elzeyadi.

The four-phase study included inspections of the existing Malvern and Valley Forge buildings—to establish benchmarks for the performance of the renovated Malvern building. There was an analysis of the unoccupied Malvern building after envelope and interior retrofits, and assessments and occupant surveys one and two years after occupancy in October 2015.

For the Valley Forge building, 275 respondents completed the survey questionnaire. For the Malvern building, 356 completed the 2016 questionnaire and 358 completed the 2017 questionnaire.

Large Pool of Data

“It was a large pool of data and we were happily surprised by the response rate,” says Elzeyadi.

Saint-Gobain is sharing the study results with all interested parties. And going forward, HiPE plans to perform more analyses and statistical modeling of the wealth of data collected on building performance and occupant comfort.

The aim is to be able to determine green building strategies and a “suite of solutions that impact an occupant’s comfort and productivity,” says Elzeyadi.