Imagine it's 8:30 a.m. on a Monday morning. You're in a dim, windowless room that's always too hot in summer or too cold in winter, and it's packed full of colleagues gasping for every last particle of fresh oxygen. It's a balmy 75% relative humidity, and the elevated CO levels from endless banter suffocate the life right out of you. Groggy and
yawning, your eyelids gradually sputter like clumsy, old garage doors until your lifeless head falls, and you are jolted back to life. Coffee, anyone?
Unfortunately, we've all been there. Although it could be caused by a boring presentation, it's more often symptomatic of poor indoor environmental quality (IEQ). Certainly, architects and engineers never intended to sedate building occupants; however, designers sometimes work from broken processes and building paradigms, relegating environmental intelligence to a late phase of design. My hope is to inspire readers to use IEQ as a driver to deliver inspiring, regenerative environments.
IEQ includes all aspects of an indoor space that contribute to comfortable human habitation, including air quality, thermal and visual comfort, occupant controls and acoustics. But economically driven conclusions generated by the owner's pro forma often become solidified during the predesign phase into built forms, well before IEQ goals are defined. It is a fair assumption in the pro forma that there will be ventilation, heating and cooling and lighting, but just as master-planning won't guarantee award-winning architecture, IEQ measures dictated by minimum code thresholds won't guarantee positive IEQ outcomes.
Strict regulation and control—via zoning ordinances, building codes and insurance practices—has resulted in a norm in which interiors are either too dim or overglazed and ventilation and heating-cooling are coupled, resulting in high energy use. Man-made and natural environments are viewed separately, and building occupants aren't engaged with each other.
The Adaptive Theory
Elsewhere, things are different. Nordic building codes enforce pro formas the same way the U.S. does but are written to generate positive IEQ outcomes.
For example, in those countries, occupants must be located no further than 6 meters, or 20 ft, from exterior glazing. Europeans ascribe to the so-called adaptive theory, which states that the more control an occupant has over his or her own thermal-visual comfort, the greater the occupant's thermal-visual comfort will be. In contrast to my Monday-morning meeting in a windowless space with a narrow temperature-humidity "band," one light source and no CO2monitor, Nordic buildings are built for actual human beings and planned to last for centuries.
Operational hours in the Northeast—where I live—and in Nordic regions maximize solar availability. Our lighting loads are almost identical, and our heating-dominant climates mean daylight equals free heating. Coincidentally, the same building geometries that embrace daylighting also embrace natural ventilation, so coupling glazing with operable windows provides free light access, fresh air and space-conditioning.
Naturally ventilated, daylit buildings consume fewer resources, have lower operational costs and smaller ecological footprints. Daylight has been proven to help productivity, reduce absenteeism and boost satisfaction. Unlike Europe, a window in the U.S. is often considered a perk, a telling difference.
Emphasizing IEQ early makes it possible for occupants to own their comfort. For example, just discussing with one's colleagues whether to open a window makes people aware of their surroundings; opening the window changes the environment. Such behaviors cannot exist within closed environments in which workers are alienated or disengaged or, in schools, children have difficulties staying focused and even learning.
Designers should program buildings to consider what occupants need for optimal health, happiness and inspiration, not merely to meet general, prescriptive code minimums. Beginning with operational and aesthetic needs, designers can use IEQ, like other tools, as part of an integrated process that produces transformative, high-performing environments.
Blake Jackson is the sustainability practice leader of Tsoi/Kobus & Associates, an architectrual practice based in Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at 617-475-4260.